When asked how long I plan to keep doing an annual 9/11 column, I reply, “As long as the war goes on”.
But it can be a struggle. Obviously it’s not a humor column, but how do I slant it this year? Do I spend a thousand words reminding everyone, again, that we’re still at war? Do I look back again at the events of that day? Do I make my argument that the terrorists intend to come back again and again until they’ve achieved their goal of a worldwide Caliphate – the overthrow of Western civilization?
Do I again point out the achievement that the Bush administration and its allies managed to prevent another terrorist attack on our soil for seven long years? How do I keep that from devolving into yet another argument about an unpopular President and his other policies? And how inappropriate would it be anyway, during this election year?
I could talk about various conspiracy theories, but I see no reason to dignify them with a response. The attack came from a splinter group of radical Islamic terrorists, and making up stories won’t change that.
Or, for personal reasons that aren’t really connected to 9/11, I could talk about my brothers.
Firefighters call themselves brothers, more recently brothers and sisters. That’s a bit ironic, because it speaks to both the good and bad things. We argue and fight, we defend and blame each other, but in the end we’re family. No one else can see what we’ve seen. No one else knows what it’s like, to go into that particular harm’s way. Diverse as we are, we share unique experiences.
In the last twenty years, civilian fire deaths in the United States dropped by half. Firefighter deaths have stayed the same: about a hundred, give or take, every year. We’re firefighters, you understand; when we see something burning, we want to put it out. When we can’t, we take it personally. We do dumb things to save the property of others, and we die.
Then there was that one day.
I need you to understand why I’m feeling even more sentimental than usual this time. I’ve been a firefighter for 28 years, and for most of that time I’ve had some chronic back pain, but (except for the bad days) you get used to it and soldier on. But this summer, I had breathing problems.
There could be all sorts of causes, or a combination. My daughter’s cats are living with me, and I’m allergic. I have dust allergies, and we’ve been in a dry spell. Or there’s that 28 years of firefighting. Air masks were a choice back then, and a heavy, unwieldy choice that we often avoided making. I sucked down a lot of smoke. Sometimes I still do at brush fires, although I’ve learned the joy of staying upwind.
Lately I’ve started thinking about how much I’ve beaten my body up over the years, not only from the smoke but from the heat, the cold, and by going from sound asleep to armpit deep in a matter of minutes. I could hang it up. I’m a volunteer, after all; it’s not like I have to worry about retirement benefits.
Those 343 who died on 9/11, they didn’t have a choice.
Citizens of 115 nations were murdered in those attacks. In New York, 1,717 people were never found, even though searchers located 19,858 body parts. 1,609 people lost a spouse, while 3,051 lost a parent. My point is, it wasn’t just firefighters who suffered that day, but I have some other statistics to throw at you:
In the year before 9/11, 274 New York City firefighters retired; in the year after, it was 661. 300 had to leave because of respiratory problems. The 343 death number itself is questionable: Among other things, a volunteer firefighter died at the Twin Towers, and I know of at least two emergency services personnel who committed suicide after working that job. The number of post-9/11 health and psychological problems is in the thousands.
It was a pretty bad job that morning, they could tell that going in – but go in they did. Their task was to evacuate, search for more victims, and somehow reach the fire. The elevators were out; it would be a four hour climb to the flames.
In the north tower, some of the firefighters with their hundred pounds of equipment reached the fortieth floor or higher. How they could have had the energy left to fight the blaze, I don’t know, but they never got a chance. One collapse, then another.
You have to wonder about firefighters, after something like that. Collapses happen all the time, in big buildings and small; I’ve seen a few up close, myself. But an entire high rise crashing to the ground? What firefighter could be convinced to go into a high rise fire after that?
Years later, a high rise that had been damaged on 9/11 caught fire. The firefighters went in, no hesitation. Two of them died.
Firefighters will be firefighters, you see.
There are firefighters who are racist, or sexist, or who have other character flaws. But when the bells go off they respond; they want to get the people out, and they want to douse that fire. They don’t care about your religion, or your sex, or the color of your skin. They don’t care if you’re voting for McCain or Obama. They don’t care if you’re a foreign tourist or a fifth generation old-timer. They’re firefighters.
For that reason, let alone all the others, we have to remember that day. After seven years, in an all too familiar cycle, firefighters are being laid off. Stations are being closed, unsafe construction practices go on, sprinkler laws are fought against, and sometimes it seems the only difference between now and 1980 is that 343 of my brothers are gone, and I’m just tired. I want a rest. I want the time to write a book. About firefighters.
They didn’t have a choice; I do, and I can’t go away just yet. I choose to honor their memory, as much as my energy and health allow. I choose not to give up the fight to make our world a safer place, for both firefighters and civilians. I choose to keep up the warning that more terrorist attacks are coming; that emergency responders will continue to be on the front lines; that this war won’t end just because we wish it. I’m sticking around.
Ask me again when I reach 30 years.