As they approach the one-year anniversary of the first attack on homeland American soil by a foreign power since the War of 1812, those who responded to that first alarm reflect on its impact, both personally and professionally.
Many may not have thought of the devastation wrought at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as an attack by a foreign power. But it was foreign to both the American mind-set and ideals, and it was launched from beyond our natural borders. Plus, the international terrorist organization that perpetrated it is a power to be reckoned with by any definition.
There is no stronger testimony to those facts than the firefighters who were catapulted into 21st-century warfare on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. As they reached the surrealistic scene of the Pentagon, the central nervous system of the world's greatest military power, their role became forever altered.
As stated by Alexandria fire chief Thomas M. Hawkins during a ceremony last Sept. 25, to honor the contributions and the endurance of the department's Heavy Technical Rescue (HTR) Team at the Pentagon, "Our profession has changed. When you left for work on Sept. 11, it was routine. When you leave home today, it's a whole different ballgame.
"In a lot of ways it strengthened us for any future incidents because it was a reinforcement of what we have been trained to do."
That was the assessment of Bryan Meckes, a paramedic with the Alexandria Fire Department. He was on the scene within minutes of American Airlines Flight 77’s transforming the Pentagon into a caldron of death and destruction.
"On the job you are always aware of the danger. But 9/11 has affected people in very personal ways. It is not something that I will ever forget. The station I'm at now, 207, there are large pictures on the wall portraying the scenes of that day," he revealed.
"The twists and turns of 9/11 have had various impacts on people. The most surprising has been the ripple effect. The outpouring of community throughout this last year has been phenomenal. As an example, there was a special event at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum especially for firefighters. It was paid for by an anonymous donor," Meckes said.
HE CITED INCIDENTS of people still coming to the various fire stations to give them tickets to Redskins games, leaving gifts, and showing their appreciation on a daily basis. And this is not confined to local venues.
Meckes said that he and his wife have traveled extensively throughout this past year, and "No matter where we have gone, that day has affected people in very personal ways. We are in the process of adopting a child in Guatemala. Even there, the people react to what we did and America in a very positive way."
On a more practical basis, Meckes emphasized that there has been an increase in hazardous materials training. "We are preparing for what might happen in the future. Our bioterrorism has been broadened," he explained.
"The primary problem that day was with communications. The system was saturated. It pointed up the fact that face-to-face communication is still very necessary. Even on-site we realized we needed to actually get to another person to communicate a message or ask a question. The radios were jammed," he said.
That assessment of heightened and broadened training was echoed by Lt. David Bogozi, department HTR. They arrived at the Pentagon on Sept. 11 and departed on Sept. 21, the last HTR specialists to leave the battle site.
"We've increased our training, and we're spending more money on hazardous material training than we did prior to 9/11. There is more of an emphasis on terrorism training, and we are trained to be more aware of our everyday surroundings," Bogozi said.
"We have also changed our incident command procedures. Now it is more directed toward incident management, with greater emphasis on groups and divisions than before," he explained. "The heavy structural collapse training has been improved."
On a personal note, Bogozi admitted that "the events of that day have brought my family closer together. I look at things that maybe I didn't before. I'm more aware of the world around me. I pay more attention and am more interested in the news than before."
But he stated that his experiences one year ago "haven't changed anything about the way I go about my job. I continue to learn and try to improve my professional skills."
ONE OF THE FIRST SYMBOLS of America’s fighting back that day came from two Alexandria firefighters who retrieved an American flag from the rubble. They spotted it as they attempted to quell the flames on the fourth and fifth floors. It was unscathed.
As they brought it forth to attach to a fence, a spontaneous cheer arose from all those struggling to quench the inferno and aid the injured. Those two firefighters were the captain of Engine 207, Donovan Upchurch, and Firefighter 2 Bill Dunleavy.
Harking back to that moment, Dunleavy said, "Nothing has really changed in my life, although I do find myself looking up at airplanes a lot more often, and I think about 9/11 almost every day.
"To me it happened yesterday. It just doesn't seem like a year [has gone by]. Once we got the fire under control, I realized that no one could have survived at the point of impact."
That observation probably caused the greatest frustration to the paramedics that day. There was little or nothing they could do. There were too few survivors.
Three of those paramedics — John McCarther, Jason Schmauder and William Jordan — were all primary witnesses to the Pentagon disaster. At the time, they described their experience as "a day-long waiting game." They had set up a triage at the scene to be prepared for patients, but none ever came.
"The sheer number of casualties that day has left an impression, but it hasn't changed a lot about the way I view the job. I looked at it from the beginning as a demanding job.
"It did affect me that it shattered so many lives. I will carry the loss of those 343 firefighters who died in New York that day in my heart and memory for the rest of my life," Jordan proclaimed.
McCarther feels, "The hype has mellowed down. Things are going back to the way they were before." This was echoed by Jordan. "From our standpoint it should go back to being more normal. What we did that day was what we are trained to do," he said.
Paramedic Khoa Tran didn't arrived at the Pentagon until about 11 p.m. on Sept. 11. "I still can't believe it really happened. It just doesn't seem possible. I flew for the first time last month, and coming back into Washington gave me a very weird feeling," he admitted.