On eve of Sept. 11 anniversary, New Brunswick firefighters reflect on ‘sombre’ day

On eve of Sept. 11 anniversary, New Brunswick firefighters reflect on ‘sombre’ day

Dwight Robertson can still hear the beeps ringing from the air tanks of New York City firefighters who rushed into the World Trade Center before it collapsed. 

The beeps the Riverview firefighter heard on TV as he watched the destruction are known as a ‘man down’ alarm.

They signal a firefighter is in trouble and needs help — an unmistakable sound for any firefighter.  

“When these alarms are going off … as a firefighter, one of your brothers or sisters are in danger,” said Robertson, a captain with the Riverview Fire Department. He has worked as a firefighter for 30 years.

“To hear all those alarms going off after the towers collapsed, it’s just crazy … you feel helpless.”

Dwight Robertson, a captain in the Riverview Fire Department, visited Ground Zero three months after the September attacks. He said the area was still smoking when he arrived. (Dwight Robertson/Submitted)

Twenty years ago tomorrow, on Sept. 11, the hijacking of four planes by Islamic extremists led to almost 3,000 deaths — in New York City, the Washington area and the Pennsylvania countryside.

Two planes were flown into the World Trade Center in New York, killing more than 2,600 people, including 343 firefighters who responded to the scene. 

When the planes hit the twin towers, Robertson remembers asking himself, ‘When is this going to stop?’ (CBC News)

“Probably everybody today can tell you where they were when they heard about it,” Robertson said.

‘Scared to death’

Robertson was cutting firewood outside his Riverview home when his wife urged him to come inside to watch the news. 

What was unfolding left him horrified.

“I was scared to death,” he said. “Being in the career that I’m in … holy smokes, this is major. This is big.”

In this file photo, smoke rises from the burning towers after hijacked planes crashed into them. (Richard Drew/Associated Press file)

So the Boston native did the only thing that made sense to him. He went to the fire hall to watch the news with his colleagues.

“People can relate to what you’re dealing with because they’re going through the same thing,” he said.

A chapel near Ground Zero, which was turned into a makeshift memorial site with flowers, notes and a giant sign that read ‘Out of the Dust.’ (Glenn Sullivan/Submitted)

Almost 175 kilometres away, Steven Fraser was building a shed in his backyard with his grandfather.

Fraser had the day off from his job as a firefighter with the Fredericton Fire Department. 

It was a warm, sunny day in New Brunswick’s capital, without a cloud in the sky. 

Steven Fraser, assistant deputy chief of operations for the Fredericton Fire Department, recalls going to his supervisor after the attacks and asking if he could go to New York City and help his colleagues. Firefighters across North America were asking to do the same. (Maria José Burgos/CBC)

His wife called out from the window to tell the two men a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  At first, Fraser thought the crash was just “a weird accident involving a small plane.”

The day of the attacks, 343 firefighters died in the line of duty, and more have suffered health problems after being exposed to toxic dust as they worked in the rubble. (Robert Giroux/Getty)

But as they watched the news unfold, Fraser said his grandfather, the former chief of the Barkers Point Volunteer Fire Department and Second World War veteran, “started to look grim.”

Fraser’s grandfather, Cecil Hamilton, had lived through the Depression and enlisted after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.

“The look on his face was almost like, ‘Here we go again.’ “

Fraser cherishes this 1945 photo of his grandfather, Cecil Hamilton, with a child he used to care for in Holland. Fraser’s grandfather was the former fire chief of the Barkers Point Volunteer Fire Department and veteran from the Second World War. (Maria José Burgos/CBC)

For days following the suicide attacks, New Brunswickers were glued to the television. 

On his 6 a.m. walk to work on Sept. 12, Fraser could see lights flickering from the TV screens inside people’s windows. 

There were barely any fire calls that day.

A firefighter walks in the rubble near the base of the destroyed World Trade Center. (Peter Morgan/Reuters)

“It was very sombre, it was very heavy, it was a deep sense of loss for society and our profession,” said Fraser, now the assistant deputy chief of operations for the Fredericton department. 

‘Going in when everybody else was running out’

Glenn Sullivan, president of the Atlantic Provinces Professional Fire Fighters Association and platoon captain for the Fredericton Fire Department, recalled firefighters asking to go to New York City to help. 

Since Sept. 11, platoon captain Glenn Sullivan of the Fredericton Fire Department has made it his mission to help firefighters and their families when they’re in need. (Maria José Burgos/CBC)

Both the Fredericton and New York City fire departments are part of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

“It sort of hit home knowing that it’s our own that’s going in,” said Sullivan.

Sullivan said ‘that day would drag us down a dark path’ and that the world has changed since Sept. 11. (Maria José Burgos/CBC)

“We fully realized what type of attitude they would’ve had … they’d be going in when everybody else was running out.”

Images honouring firefighters who died in the line of duty on Sept. 11. (Glenn Sullivan/Submitted)

People across the province began raising money for the families of the fallen firefighters.

A look at Ground Zero one year after two American Airlines planes crashed into the twin towers. Some said the area looked like a construction site. (Glenn Sullivan/Submitted)

Firefighters in Fredericton helped replace some of the bass drums for the pipe and drum bands at the New York Fire Department.  

Makeshift memorials were set up throughout the city during Sullivan’s visit in October 2002. (Glenn Sullivan/Submitted)

“They ended up wearing out the drums from all the funerals,” Sullivan said.

A taste of New Brunswick

Meanwhile, Robertson and his colleagues wanted to do something truly New Brunswick.

Four firefighters from Riverview delivered maple syrup to the families of the 343 New York firefighters who died Sept. 11. In this photo, they’re presenting syrup to the union president of the New York Fire Department at the time. (Dwight Robertson/Submitted)

New York City firefighters who visited the Riverview fire hall years prior had raved about New Brunswick’s maple syrup. 

“They were used to things like table syrups, like Aunt Jemima … where ours is true, traditional maple syrup.” 

A glimpse inside the Fredericton Fire Department on York Street. (Maria José Burgos/CBC)

Robertson and three other firefighters drove to New York City in December 2001 and delivered New Brunswick maple syrup for the families of the firefighters killed in the attacks.  

Up in smoke 

Robertson recalled the buildings that surrounded Ground Zero were still covered in dust and fires still burned, nearly three months later.

“It was eerie, just eerie,” he said. “It was quiet and you could still smell the smoke in the air.”

The Riverview group also visited one of the local fire halls, a common practice for firefighters touring other cities. 

Robertson captured a photo of New York City just months after the twin towers collapsed. (Dwight Robertson/Submitted)

Robertson saw a pile of smashed radios piled in a corner. There were old badges, helmets and broken ladders salvaged from the rubble after the fall of the towers. 

“Doors off a fire engine basically twisted into unrecognizable pieces of metal,” he said. 

Haunting artifacts on display inside the Memorial Museum include the remains of a ladder company 3 truck. (Associated Press)

Robertson returned home to his family on Christmas Eve — a holiday he’ll never forget.

“Made you appreciate … when you go home,” he said. “A lot of people didn’t that day.”

The 1st anniversary 

A year later, firefighters from across New Brunswick headed to New York City to pay homage to the 343 fallen firefighters in a parade and ceremony. 

A parade in memory of the firefighters who died on Sept. 11 was held a year after the attacks. (Steve Fraser/Submitted)

Sixteen firefighters from Fredericton piled into vans to join their counterparts from all over the world for the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Fraser joined the thousands of firefighters from around the world at the memorial parade. (Steve Fraser/Submitted)

“I remember kind of turning the corner and it was just a sea of firefighters dressed in uniform as far as you could see in either direction,” Fraser said.

People were hanging out of windows, waving, cheering and yelling “We love you.”

Fraser wanted to become a firefighter from the time he was a child. He used to put on his father’s firefighter gear, climb trees and play ‘fireman.’ (Maria José Burgos/CBC)

Fraser said he felt like a VIP and part of the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  

“Here I am a young guy from Barkers Point marching in a parade down Eighth Avenue in New York City … it’s something you never would dream of.”

‘Dirty snow’

During his visit, Fraser saw the window display of a clothing store showcasing the dust that had come into the store when the attacks happened.

“It looked like a couple of centimetres of dirty snow,” he said.

Firefighters walk in rubble near the base of the collapsed south tower on Sept. 11. Along with the tragic loss of almost 3,000 lives on Sept. 11, thousands of documents, books, historical records, artworks and other items were destroyed. (Peter Morgan/Reuters)

At Grand Central Station, billboards with messages such as ‘Have you seen my brother?’ and ‘Have you seen my husband? Please call’ were preserved as a memorial.

An old sign shows plans for a new World Trade Center, larger than the one before. (Glenn Sullivan/Submitted)

Signs that were attached to buildings were twisted and broken off. Some of the buildings bore what looked like giant scars from the debris that had hit them, Fraser said. 

“You could see the damage everywhere you looked,” he said. “It was just enormous.”

Life after Sept. 11

Sullivan said many people still don’t realize what happened to firefighters during and after the attacks, including the impact on their mental health and the occupational cancers they developed from toxic dust exposure as they dug through the rubble. 

Firefighters respond to a call in Fredericton earlier this week. (Maria José Burgos/CBC)

For 20 years, he has made it his mission to make sure firefighters and their families are taken care of.

“A lot of people don’t forget 9/11, but they forget the impacts afterwards of 9/11.” 

A mural painted outside the Fredericton fire hall. (Maria José Burgos/CBC)

Since their trip to New York in 2002, some firefighters in the Fredericton group have been promoted, four have retired and one has died.

Fraser keeps his father’s old helmet from the Barkers Point Fire Department in his office. (Maria José Burgos/CBC)

For Fraser, who will retire next month, the visit to New York will always be a memorable part of his 29-year career.

“It was a very emotional and very sombre and somewhat rewarding experience to know that you were part of history,” he said.  

The day of the attacks, Robertson went to the fire hall to be with his colleagues. He will be back at the hall this Saturday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11. (CBC)

On Saturday, Robertson will be at the Riverview fire hall with his fellow firefighters — just as he was 20 years ago.

“From everything bad that has happened from that day, it definitely shows how strong we are as a family.”


Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *