9/11 – Remembering the 343 And A Promise Made

To Captain Mike Dugan and all those who serve with him that must forever live with the loss of the 343.  And to the memory of FF Tom Kelly, who as a young iron worker, built the towers that would later crush him to death.  RFB.

New York Firefighter

"Heroes of Truck 25" by Arthur "WeeGee" Fellig. Used with permission, The Gordon Archive.

 Never Forget. It seems simple enough. But I think it is perhaps a very complicated thing. How long do we mourn? Is ten years too long for people you did not personally know? What about twenty?  Should firemen on the other side of the nation act as if their own hearts were ripped out, their own co-workers fell, their own family members?  Shouldn’t we just move on like we do over every other disaster and heart-rending film clip on CNN?     How easily the years have gone by.  Or have they?    

 Not for me.  Not for many of those I call my own.  I cannot speak for all firemen, but I can speak for many.   I cannot forget, 9/11/01.  The fireman I was before 9/11 is not the fireman that I am now.   That changed in an instant.  Before both towers had gone to ground, I had become a different firefighter.   For myself and thousands of other firemen, we had not only a career changing moment, but a life-changing moment.  We went from trying to understanding our profession, to trying to define our calling.  All things that had been before were somehow less intense, our current time, began when the towers went down.  I am being bold in my thinking here, ..bear with me.  Sit down, enjoy a cup o’ Joe.  Cream and sugar are on the table….    

I have been on the job for nearly twenty years now.  How the time has flown.  I pinned on the badge and took the oath for the first time in April 1991.  I became a FIREMAN on the night of April 2, 1992.  That was the first change.  That was the first time I glimpsed the bigger picture of what it is we do in this profession, this calling.  Suddenly I was able to see past my insignificant self and realized how important it was to the public to know that we were there.  How important it was to them to know that we would come, regardless of the threat and answer the call.    Ten years later, as the FDNY stood helpless in the streets of Manhattan, I felt again, that moment when you realize that you have been witness to the act that we are sometimes expected to perform.  To know in your heart that as those firemen climbed those stairs, they were actively laying themselves down in the service of the public trust.  I was forever impacted by witnessing that act.   Christ said there was no greater act then to give oneself for others.  That is the meaning behind Chief Croker’s famous statement, “…the very work of God himself”.    

Every set of stairs is a reminder.  The tallest building I have to worry about in our town is twelve floors, so as I arrive at the top wearing a full airpack and equipment I’m thinking, “How did they do it?”  How did they get so far?  There is no set of stairs anywhere in my response area that will ever require the same of me.   We brave a lot of difficult circumstances in the arctic, but we don’t have anything like the WTC.    

"The Polaris"

The Polaris. Vacant for many years. Not the best place to be breathing even on a good day. Photo by author.


Yet it crosses my mind every time I climb a set of stairs.  Truth.  I never fail to feel that thought as I climb stairs.   And I really mean to say “feel that thought”.  For that thought gives motivation to burning muscle and working lungs.  “If they could do that…this is like climbing a porch step..”    

 Not long ago my company and I responded to a local vacant building.  Vagrants had lit a mattress fire and smoke had filled the entire structure.  Thoughts of 9/11 filled my mind.  Not because of any fears, (very different situation) but because the 343 long ago ceased to be faces or names that were unfamiliar.  In the streets of our small city, the apparatus of three departments gathered.  We were assigned RIT, so I needed to look around and took my camera along.  My brothers from the Fort were there, forcing entry, opening up.  Gray smoke ejected from the forced doors and cracks.  The city guys were deep inside the ground floor hittin’ the seat.  Chief officers gathered on the corner by the ICP and it all felt like one. Among these guys I feel at home.    


There’s Keith, he’s zippin’ around like he does, knows what’s going down and what needs doing.  Jason is ready with the maul, …that’s Dave on the radio.  I think I heard Rowdy’s voice too.    Re-assigned, we go in, search must be accomplished on all floors.  Foul smell, acrid smoke.  “Jason, ..watch your back in there,..its been abandoned for a long, long time.”  A friendly smile with brotherhood all over it.  “Thanks, …thanks.  Will do.”    

"10th Floor, Polaris"

"Light smoke near the top floor." Photo by Author.


There’s Rowdy, “Ben, hey ….stay on air up there, you don’t want to be breathing this place”.   I know all these guys.  We wave, we shake hands, we clunk helmets together, we hug like only brothers do.  We are a small town’s firemen, from a lot of different departments.  But these guys know me, we’ve worked dozens of fires together, and they know I have trained many of their newer guys over the years. They tease my crew, knowing how young they are, but they also believe in their ability to do the job.  They know I don’t waste my time with them.  We are all connected.  We are really one big department.   If any one of them fell, I would do anything to reach them.  These things cross my mind as I climb to the top floor, feeling the strain of the load.  Shadows of 9/11.      

“I’ll never forget, they day that they died, on Nine, One, One…..” were the words written by a New York firefighter*.  These words speak in my heart.  For no other day in my life has defined what I do, and who I am and what I believe, more than this day.  How can I forget?      

"At the Polaris"

"Brothers from the Fort opening up". Photo by Author.


To forget would be to deny myself, my brothers, my friends, our national identity, our calling in life, the men who..have died..in action, as a direct result of this murderous crime committed by men whose hearts were seething with hate.  How fitting is it then that their crime should be remembered most by the beautiful act of American firemen, rushing into the whirlwind of death, to give of themselves for their fellow-man.  Remember Fallen Brothers.      



  • jeni says:

    Thank you, Ben. That does give perspective, even to us non first responder types. We often feel less connected, not impacted much. It helps to remember through your eyes. No greater love…good analogy.

  • Jeni –

    The analogy is the best way for me to express how much devotion there is in the hearts of most of these men and women. I didn’t coin it, but it hits home for the men I work with. The best of things dwell in the roughest of men at times.

  • jstwndrng says:

    I think this line…”There is no set of stairs anywhere in my response area that will ever require the same of me” captures the entire spirit of what you’ve so beautifully said here. As your belly-button brother, I’m exceedingly glad that there are no taller buildings in your “response area” and I fervently wish that the county (or shire or province or whatever you have up there) would consider lowering the building-height limit to a single floor, and that firemen be legally barred from entering any buildings where there is the risk of encountering the merest whiff of smoke, or even a rusty nail. But I guess, as we tell my daughter often, “I can’t have that wish.” God speed you.


    • Ben says:

      Ah, yes. That is I’m sure, the wish of many family members and concerned citizens. The thing that so many folks struggle to understand is the mentality of firemen. Hopeless really doesn’t matter, neither does danger. Once you are among the brethren, your reason and logic have less weight than does your bond with the rest of your band of brothers. So, one goes because he can help himself, he must do something, must act. Another goes because he is the officer, it is duty and he will be “First IN, Last OUT”. The rest go because, in spite of everything, it is their job. And not a single one would allow himself to be left behind. There are things that must be done. That being said, a steel building like the WTC had never fallen due to fire. They really had no reason to fear such a thing.

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