I have vivid memories.
I had joined the local volunteer fire department in March of 2001, mainly to have something to do in the tiny college town I was living in - a dry town where the evening entertainment options were to do bible study, go to the waffle house, or wander the Walmart. Even though I joined as a passing lark, I quickly found that I loved it. The camaraderie. The effort. The ability to help people. By the end of that Spring semester, I was hooked, and by the end of the Summer semester I had decided to withdraw from college for a year to go to EMT school and go to work full time as a firefighter.
I had been a firefighter about 6 months, total, when I was detailed to the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Monroe, GA to go to a First Responder training. Monday, the first day of class, was uneventful.
The second day of training...Tuesday, September 11, 2001...was not. I will never forget all of our emergency pagers going off at once, and someone pulling out their statewide EMA pager that could do text dispatch, standing up in horror, and saying "holy ####...America is under attack."
The GPSTC went into lockdown almost immediately. The classes were adjourned and everyone congregated in the main building, where we gathered around the central TVs. Firefighters, police officers, EMS, military details, GA state patrol...we all stood shoulder to shoulder and watched in horror as the first tower went down. We knew what was coming after that. I will never ever forget the abject silence as we stood, everyone in fervent prayer, hoping that that second tower would stay up long enough for everyone to get out, knowing that our brothers and sisters were in there. We all knew that our job was dangerous by nature, but we trained to be safe. This, though...this was something else.
I will never ever forget, either, how quiet it was when the second tower went, except for one person who whispered "There goes the other one." It was shockingly loud in the quiet. Somehow, it was more terrible than shouts or screams. The nation was stunned...we, though, just looked around at each other knowing that there but for the grace of God....
And then we went back to class. Because we knew that we would be needed. Because that's what you did.
That afternoon, after we were dismissed for the day, I went back to my hotel room. I just stood in front of the television, watching, processing. That day, and the rest of the week. I remember the singing of God Bless America. I remember the speeches.
I remember, most, though, when they announced how many firefighters were unaccounted for. Three hundred and forty three of our brothers. The moment when I heard that was - as far as I can remember - the first time that I truly cried as an adult. I dropped to my knees, stunned, and the tears started pouring down my face. I know I am not the only one.
I knew none of the police or port authority officers. I knew none of the flight attendants, nor the victims, although I know people who did. I didn't personally know any of the firefighters, either. But I KNEW them, and WAS them. From that moment forward until the time I left the fire service, whenever I worked I carried with me in my pocket or my wallet a small metal tag engraved with "343".
I think that every person in public safety that was in the profession around that time has a strange, small bit of survivors guilt from 9/11. Some people in the field left shortly after because of it, only to be replaced by others who joined in order to honor the heroism shown. I know that every one I ever talked to never forget that day, and every year around this date, as time moves on and memories start to fade into grey, we stop for a moment and say a quick thank you, salute the fallen, take a deep breath, and keep on.