It was in our largest metropolis, where the essence of victory in World War II was epitomized by the kiss of a U.S. Navy sailor, and at the heart of our military might.
First came the twin towers of the World Trade Center and then American Airlines Flight 77 turning the Pentagon in a caldron of death and destruction. And finally, the crash of United Flight 93 in that empty field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
But out of all that desolation, death, sorrow and heartbreak emerged the true spirit of this nation. From firefighters, to Emergency Management Technicians, to doctors, to military personnel, to family members, to everyday citizens, there was an outflow of resilience, reliance and duty.
With all of the bad news about the recession that has seemed to entrap and engulf the national psyche in the eight years since September 11, 2001, perhaps this anniversary is the appropriate time to once again listen to the local voices that answered the call that fateful Tuesday morning.
As then Alexandria City Manager, Philip Sunderland, stated in a tribute to all that had served during those harrowing hours and days after the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, “We are at the end of an era of looking up to multi-million dollar athletes and financiers. You (our first responders) are now the people we will look up to.”
Here are some of their reactions the day that 21st century conflict came home to the continental United States.
“This one needs oxygen. Try to avoid tearing open her blisters. This one’s in danger of airway compromise. We need to get her intubated.”
Those were some of the quick response orders being shouted by Bryan Meckes, an acting supervisor and paramedic with the Alexandria Fire Department and one of the first to arrive at the Pentagon that morning. With him was Dr. James Vafier, Alexandria Fire Department Medical Director, who became the Command Physician on site and designated the Alexandria paramedics to be “the primary triage team.”
“It was like a scene from a movie. It was surreal. People were coming at us with nothing but terror in their eyes. One military officer came out and fell on the ground badly burned,” said John McCarther, Emergency Rescue Technician 2.
Joining crews from Alexandria and Arlington County Fire departments were those from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport Fire Department. They had the only foam truck capable of dealing with the Pentagon inferno.
“We originally got a call from the dispatcher about a multi-vehicle accident on the upper level of the airport. I don’t normally accompany the crew to that type of call but something didn’t sound right,” said Captain Michael T. Fefina, Jr., Fire Operations Division, at the time.
“We were wrapping up that situation and had our backs to the parkway when we heard this tremendous explosion. As I turned, I saw this plume of smoke rising from the direction of the Pentagon,” Defina recalled.
In addition to the raging inferno, fed by the highly volatile jet fuel, was the continuing danger of building collapse that threatened to entrap and encase additional victims. That’s were Alexandria Fire Department’s Heavy Technical Rescue squad came into play.
The entire 30 person HTR team found themselves facing a challenge that will be forever seared not only into their memories but also into their spirits. They arrived the morning of September 11. They left September 21 the last HTR specialists to leave the smoldering, scorched, car of America’s entrance into the first war of the 21st century.
The dedication of that team, under the command of Lt. David Bogozi, was honored by then Alexandria Fire Chief Thomas M. Hawkins, when he noted, “Our profession was changed. When we left for work before September 11, it was routine. When you leave home today, it’s a whole different ball game.”
Those words were particularly prophetic for one military officer Colonel Thomas W. Williams. His office was on the ground floor of the Pentagon, immediately next to the black hole gauged by flight 77.
Williams was in his office early preparing for a meeting that morning at a nearby hotel. “There was car waiting to take us to the hotel. I walked some people to the parking lot. When we reached the car there were too many of us so I decided to take another car,” he said reflecting on that morning.
“I also realized I needed to get something from my office. So I told them to go ahead. As I was walking back to the office, I heard the explosion and then saw this debris coming at me,” Williams said.
“If I had not walked out to that car that morning I would not be here now,” Williams said a year later sitting in his office at Fort Belvoir as Garrison Commander. Two others of his office staff, Sandra Taylor and Cheryl Sincock, were killed and Lt. Col. Brian Birdwell was severely burned.
But those moments of triumph over tragedy were personified by the most enduring symbol of that tragic day, reminiscent of the Marines on Iwo Jima, when Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department firefighters from Penn Daw Station in Mount Vernon District helped military personnel unfurl a gigantic Stars and Stripes from the roof of the still smoldering Pentagon on September 12.
“When we were asked to assist the military with the flag I realized this was going to be a significa
nt event. But none of us realized that photo would come to represent the events that had happened at the Pentagon,” said Captain David G. Lange on the first anniversary of the attacks.
On the eve of the first anniversary of the attacks, Meckee said, “On the job you are always aware of the danger. But, 9/11 has affected people in a very personal way. It is not something I will ever forget.” Nor should any of us.
September 11th, 2009, will mark the eighth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania that took the lives of 2,984 innocent victims. Twelve Alexandrians were among those lost that day, with many more among the first responders at the Pentagon. We give thanks to those brave men and women who unselfishly answered that emergency call and pay homage to the Alexandrians who gave their lives that day.