First responders answered the call 20 years ago

David Karp/AP: Fire and smoke billows from the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, after terrorists crashed two hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and brought down the twin towers.

Editor’s note:  This is the first in a series of articles by the Rev. Tim Rynearson, chaplain of the Brookings Fire Department, on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

Sept. 11, 2001: “Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts. The victims were in airplanes, or in their offices: secretaries, business men and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends and neighbors” President George W. Bush.

It’s been 20 years since that day of fear and horror. The images from that day are still vivid: Images of planes flying into the Twin Towers, the collapse of the towers, the Pentagon burning, the field in Pennsylvania. The nation stopped working, classrooms stopped teaching, everyone was focused on the images wondering what was next and who could have done such a thing. For many the upcoming 20th anniversary is difficult, difficult to comprehend, to re-live, or even to imagine who would do such a thing.

The Brookings Fire Department has been talking this through at our monthly meetings over the last six months. We focused on this because of the massive loss of life to our fellow firefighters, EMTs and those in law enforcement. We also talked about it because many of our younger members barely remember the attack as they were quite young when it happened.

On that day, nearly 400 first responders died. They ran toward the towers while everyone else was running away. They were climbing the steps carrying hoses and other gear while others were coming down. They were trying to save as many as possible. They gave their lives. Over one-third of all the emergency personnel at the scene died. Out of the total dead (2,753) ,343 belonged to the New York Fire Department.

We know the statistics of those who died. We also know that almost 90% of those who were in the towers at that time of day were safely evacuated. How many of those were helped by the firefighters is known only to God. Certainly, their efforts saved thousands.

The work of the first responders continued after that day. It took 99 days before all the fires were put out at Ground Zero. They searched for days to find survivors and then to find those who didn’t make it out alive. The death toll continued to rise. It is still rising among those who ended up with disease and cancer because of their rescue work.

Why do some run in when others run out?

No doubt, it has to do with training, with a desire to help, with a feeling of responsibility to care for others. Yet, these were not some sort of greater people than the rest of us. Many put others ahead of themselves. In the last year, we’ve witnessed countless nurses, medical technicians, doctors, and hospital janitors do what was necessary to help others. In the last weeks, we have witnessed members of the military doing what they could to help others escape certain death. In the last days, many have climbed on trucks and headed south so they could restore electricity after the storm.

Maybe the question shouldn’t be about which way should we run but instead the question should be how can we be of help to others. Why are we here? Is it just for ourselves or is it to help others? One nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. Isn’t that what we’re all called to uphold? What is our role? It’s good for all of us to think through these questions.

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