Delaware firemen discuss their journey in New York City to help FDNY, just days after 9/11.
Wilmington fireman Les Warrick was in New York just days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, supporting his brothers.
Although 9/11 was more than a decade ago, it’s a day that’s remained fresh in Warrick’s mind.
“I probably think about it every day,” said Warrick, who’s been with Cranston Heights Fire Company for nearly two decades. “It’s the same old story: when everyone else is running out of a building, firefighters are running in trying to save lives.”
Sunday marks the 15th anniversary of a series of devastating events where terrorists hijacked four planes. Two crashed into the World Trade Center in New York; one flew into the Pentagon in Washington; the fourth crashed into a Pennsylvania field.
The Fire Department of the City of New York lost 343 firemen in the collapse of the Trade Center. Many were buried under the debris of the Twin Towers, each 110 stories. One of Warrick’s most vivid memories from his time in New York, from Sept. 30 until Oct. 7, was learning his liaison’s brother died.
“He tried to make it a point for us to get everybody down to the site at least once,” he said.
What Warrick discovered there was breathtaking.
“When you see two piles of rubble that were the height and the size of the two towers sitting there in a seven-story pile – and you walk around pedestrian bridges that were collapsed and you see other buildings that were severely damaged – it’s more than you can wrap your head around,” he said.
Jamie Turner, a Clayton Fire Company member since 1966, was in New York City from late September until Oct. 6 to assist. He too was overwhelmed by the sight of Ground Zero.
“It looked like an atomic bomb went off,” Turner said. “There was crushed police vehicles and fire equipment. It’s something you’ll never forget.”
Bill Walton, who retired as an EMS training administrator at the Delaware State Fire School this past January, was with Cranston Heights at the time. He helped out at a command post from Sept. 16-23. He remembers how eerily quiet it was downtown.
“Businesses were still open, but there were very few people in them, because very few people were coming to New York,” said Walton of Dagsboro. “From talking to some people, a lot of them were saying a terror attack happened and it could happen again.”
Lending a hand
While FDNY members mined rubble to find survivors, Turner, Warrick and Walton performed a different job. Their mission was to do logistical tasks like ordering and picking up hundreds of FDNY flags for fallen members’ burials. They also oversaw the chaplain corps, where clergymen were brought in to offer emotional support to firemen and their families.
“I built a database and recorded the purchase orders that were made on behalf of FDNY,” Turner said. “The first one I recorded was for 400 caskets for the fallen. That kind of got to me.”
Handling those tasks allowed New York firemen more time to continue searching for survivors. Many would dig 10 hours a day.
“You never leave anybody behind unless you know there’s absolutely no hope,” Warrick said. “Most of those guys got very little rest.”
Bringing in firemen from outside the state also allowed the city’s firefighters to focus on putting out fires downtown, which didn’t stop after 9/11.
“Guys were on shift and had to work,” Warrick said. “It was business as usual.”
On the house
When Walton and his team went to a restaurant or bar in New York City, they were in uniform and often thanked.
“Many times we would finish eating dinner and whoever was the waiter or waitress would say, ‘there’s no charge,’” Walton said. “It took us aback. One of our two times the owner of the restaurant came over and said, ‘We appreciate what you’re doing for us.’”
Prior to 9/11, it had been years since he last visited the Big Apple. The fast-paced city didn’t leave a good impression on him. But this time, things were different.
“When we got up there and people found out why we came up there, they couldn’t thank us enough,” he said.
Since 9/11, more than 1,000 Ground Zero workers, including FDNY members and first responders, have been diagnosed with cancer from inhaling too much contaminated dust.
“That number is going to be something crazy by the time it’s all over, because of the illnesses that were borne by working in that mess up there,” Warrick said.
It’s a reminder that New York hasn’t fully recovered. “The average person thinks 9/11 is over and New York is back,” said Walton.
Sept. 11 was a wakeup call that forced Walton to reevaluate how he wanted to spend the rest of his life. “I don’t want to lie on my deathbed and say, ‘gosh, I could’ve done [this or] that,” he said.
He and his wife make it habitat to travel more often. In May, he went motorcycling in Alaska with some firemen friends.
“The moral of the whole story is don’t put off today something you can do,” Walton said, “because you might not have a chance tomorrow.”