I woke up feeling excited. The next morning I would be flying to the east coast to watch my son, Ryan, graduate from Coast Guard boot camp in Cape May, New Jersey. I had found a very cool, small hotel to stay at in Cape May that was just across the street from the Atlantic Ocean. I couldn’t wait to get there and see my son in his uniform, standing at attention saying “yes sir”. From a petite and fragile being that I cradled -even before his Mother held him- to a graduate of the United States Coast Guard. How could this be? I had to see it to believe it.
I lay there and played out my itinerary in my head. I would get off work tomorrow morning at 8am, drive directly to PDX, get on the plane, arrive in Baltimore, rent a car and make the 4 hour drive to Cape May.
Ryan and I would head to Philadelphia for a few days after he graduated. I love the east coast and all of its history. But to spend some time there with my oldest child as he began a new life in the United States Coast Guard was..., well, I was riding on top of the world.
But first, I had to work my 24 hour shift at the fire station that would begin in two hours. I was assigned to Station 17 where we had a fire engine and a fire boat. I loved my job and the guys I worked with. We loved working with each other.
I jumped up, saw a bright day beginning outside, said good morning to my wife, who herself was getting ready for work, and popped the “Best of ZZ Top” cd into my stereo. I cranked it up.
It was the morning of September 11, 2001 and life could not get any better.
As I headed to Station 17, on Hayden Island in the Columbia River, I took my usual route with my usual guy accompanying me, Les Sarnoff on KINK FM 102. I was still thinking about my east coast journey when I realized that I had been driving for 10 minutes and all there was on the radio was news chatter. Very unusual for Les. Focusing on my radio dial, I saw that it was in fact on KINK. I turned it up and heard a strange voice talking about a plane flying into a building in New York.
“Jesus,” I thought. I remembered reading about the plane that flew into the side of the empire state building over 50 years ago as the city was hidden in a fog bank. It must have happened again.
But an instant later, my reasoning was shattered by the man on the radio saying that a second plane had hit the building right next to it.
My first reaction to that announcement was that I was listening to a version of the radio spoof from the 30s when Orson Welles broadcast “The War of the Worlds” and everyone listening went into abject panic. I am too savvy for that, I thought. I am not biting. To think that two separate planes had slammed into two separate buildings was, well, unthinkable.
I will never forget where I was when I realized this day was no spoof.
I was sitting at a red stop light on NE Martin Luther King and Columbia Blvd. I was still convinced I was listening to some put on about an attack on the World Trade Center Towers in New York. As the announcer on the radio kept talking, I looked to my left and saw a woman sitting in her car next to me also waiting for the light to change. Her hands were clasped tightly over her mouth and tears were streaming down her face. Even when the light turned green she stared straight ahead and did not move. She just sat there horrified, crying.
I felt as though I had been hit in the stomach. As I finally began driving I tried to comprehend how this could happen. I remember becoming aware that this could be no accident. Someone was attacking us.
Of course, I thought about the innocents working in a building that had been transformed from a familiar work place to a living hell. But I could not help but focus on the scores of firefighters who would be entering the buildings to rescue those trapped hundreds of feet above the earth. Having been to many high rise fires, I knew the unique dangers of fighting a fire far above the ground –and safety- below. “God”, I thought, “Be Safe.”
As I went into the fire station, the on coming and off going shift of firefighters were huddled around the TV. The image of the two high rise towers burning evoked chatter amongst us of similar infernos we had all been part of battling in Portland. We were all worried for our colleagues across the continent, of course, but they were doing what firefighters do. We had all run into burning buildings while even the rats were running out. We had seen similar fires countless times in our careers. Its’ dangerous, but we know what we are doing.
And then the unthinkable. In all of our collective careers, none of us had ever seen or heard of anything like it. First one, then the other tower crumbled to the ground in kind of an exclamation point to the horror of this day. We sat in stunned silence knowing instantly what it would take others hours to come to grips with.
Anyone in either building when the towers collapsed was gone. In an instant, gone. No goodbyes, no second chances at life. Gone. In the gallows humor at a fire station, we often say “dead is forever”. We had never seen such a horrific example of it.
Eventually, we began our routine at the fire station that day, but it was different. We all had been to firefighters and police officer funerals where inevitably someone would say the officer or firefighter had “given their life”. We always knew that was a lie. None of us would ever “give” our life. It would have to be taken. We would fight to live until silence and blackness overwhelmed our consciousness, no matter the odds.
We had seen with our own eyes hundreds of our fellow firefighters lives stolen in a cataclysmic convergence of hate, physics and destiny. Whether those firefighters had plans for a family reunion, birthday or witnessing the graduation of a child from the coast guard boot camp, this was to be their last day on this earth.
While each of us knew we could lose our life, we also knew we had the tools to trick death. Death in the performance of duty was something that happened, but only when mistakes occurred. We drilled every day to minimize –if not eliminate- those mistakes from occurring. We would cheat death at every opportunity and then laugh about it.
There was, however, no amount of training that could have prepared my heroes that day. The only warning would have been the deafening noise of each of the floors above them collapsing onto the floor beneath. One floor at a time, growing louder as the collapsing floors came closer. 343 of the 3,024 lives lost that fateful day were firefighters.
While I would not be able to go to Ryan’s Coast Guard graduation in New Jersey, I would eventually be able to hug him again. That embrace was probably longer than it would have been had there been no September, 11th.