May 25, 2018
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Honor of first responders must not fade

By John Martell, Special to the BDN

We were on duty that day. Not in New York but at home in Portland. We watched from the day rooms of the station houses, the images layered one after another.

The live shot of the first tower and the myriad unconfirmed reports. Then the small blur across the screen and the inferno that followed. There was no need for confirmation anymore. We all knew.

Everything stopped. We gathered and watched, not much being said. But we knew.

We knew you and your brothers were in there. Then we saw it. Watching in disbelief as the first tower gave way. Our eyes meeting across the tables. No words being said. Saying to ourselves, God, get them out of there. Get them out of there now. Then the second tower let go. More of you were still in there. We all knew.

The days have passed, though not easily. Many of us have asked if we could have faced what you faced. I don’t know. We don’t know the feeling of loss the surviving members of the companies feel everyday. We can’t ever begin to know the burden of emptiness the families of 343 firefighters harbor in their souls.

But we who ride the trucks every day, along with a grateful nation, watched on September 11, 2001. We watched as the world’s greatest fire department answered the call. The sacrifices of 343 New York Fire Department firefighters and their families were not in vain. Nor will they be forgotten.

They answered the call that day and did their job. But we knew they would. We all knew.

Ten years ago I wrote the words above after our nation was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Now as we mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I believe I could not express the essence of that day any differently.

As we reflect back to that clear morning in New York, most of us recall the footage from that day. The black smoke billowing from the first tower, the second plane striking home, fire erupting from the Pentagon and the reports of Flight 93 going down.

We revisit the heartbreaking stories of the more than 2,000 civilians killed; recount the efforts of 343 NYFD firefighters and the 60 public safety officers who marched up those stairs in an attempt to save as many lives as possible — fully realizing what their fate would be.

In the aftermath of that day, thousands of firefighters, cops, construction and trade workers swarmed to Ground Zero; first in hopes of finding survivors, then resigned to the grim task of recovering the remains of those lost so that loved ones would have some measure of comfort.

The resolve and determination of these men and women strengthened our nation at a critical moment. It showed we would not be beaten down, that we would come back. The country vowed to forever honor the fallen of that day, that we would never forget.

Nations are measured on how they respect their fallen and care for those who have served. Without question, the deaths of 343 NYFD firefighters brought a heightened appreciation of the job we do.

Yet there is a danger that without vigilance some will forget. Some did forget. It took five years to pass a bill in Congress to provide care for those who worked the acrid pile of Ground Zero and have fallen sick. These domestic veterans are still suffering the consequences of that day and deserve our continued support. It falls upon those who remember to keep those heroes in the minds of all Americans.

It is not always easy to look back on days that have caused us pain. No matter where we were that day, we can remember the feelings that overwhelmed us as we watched the events unfold. But not only on this tenth anniversary, but also on every year, it is our duty to remember those who died in the towers, the Pentagon and to recall the unselfish actions of those on Flight 93 who perished in the countryside of Pennsylvania.

The people of the United States must never forget the actions of 343 brothers of the FDNY and the 60 public safety officers who climbed the stairs of those towers on 9/11. They answered the call that day and did their job, but we knew they would. We all knew.

John Martell is a Portland firefighter and the president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Maine. He lives in Harpswell.

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