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September 11, 2021

When a Firefighter Dies: Remembering my Father & 9/11.

When a firefighter dies, the world is changed.

On Monday, September 11, 2001, the day started as usual—nothing unique, nothing different.

I sat at my desk and began my work. Suddenly, my director came out of her office and stated, “Something just happened in the city. I think a plane flew into the World Trade Center.” It was a little before 9 a.m.

The entire office gathered in the reception area to figure out what happened to get the news from wherever possible. The internet went down, which left us cut off from the outside world. A few of us walked across the street to a restaurant and watched what we could from the news.

A plane flew into the Trade Center.

I never forgot the words of one of the managers, “That is no accident; it was done on purpose; this is an attack,” he said. Thinking he is full of conspiracy theories, we continued our discussions about the event that morning. But then after 9 a.m. came the news—a second plane had hit the second tower. And then the news about the plane hitting the Pentagon, and the plane that crashed with uncertainty of what happened filled the air with speculation.

What was going on? Were we under attack? My coworker received a call from her son; he was on a bus travelling into New York, but his bus was not allowed to enter. We were all scared and nervous at the same time. I remember my brother had a meeting that day at the Twin Towers, and I think I called him to make sure he was safe—his meeting was in the afternoon, so he was not downtown. I had a moment of relief. And then it happened…

When a firefighter dies, it is with courage.

We heard the news of the collapse of the South Tower; it was after 10 a.m. About half an hour later, the North Tower fell. We were all in panic. Who would be so bold to attack the United States? We saw footage, and we heard stories.

People were jumping out of the World Trade Center’s windows. Downtown Manhattan shut down. The trains were not working. People were stuck. People walked home. It looked like a war zone. And then we were informed that many firefighters, police officers, and first responders were killed. I felt such sorrow for all the lost lives, and then it hit me like a brick in my gut: firefighters! My dad was a fireman.

 

 

Panic entered my heart with such intensity that I could barely breathe. I called my parents’ home and there was no answer. My panic intensified. I am a woman of faith, but I cannot remember if I prayed out loud or in the silence of my heart. I searched my adrenaline-filled brain to try and remember the phone number of my dad’s firehouse. I frantically dialed the number. I don’t remember if it was busy. I hung up and called again and again and again, but when I finally heard a ring, the conversation was simple:

When a firefighter dies, the world loses an angel.

A fireman answered: “214, 111 who are you calling about?”
Me: Charles Williams
The fireman: “Charlie is safe.”
He hangs up.

When a firefight dies, things are not the same.

Usually when I call the firehouse, it would be jokes or small talk, “Charlie, let me wake him up,” “Charlie, he is hiding out somewhere,” or “Charlie, he’s getting his second meal.” But this time it was short to the point and cold. I could only imagine the number of calls this man had and was about to have. I imagined this was happening all throughout the city at firehouses and police stations—any place a first responder might call a second home.

My heart hurts to think of “they are not coming home” responses that many received. The children, the wives, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, aunties, and uncles, all grieving. I was thankful that my father was safe, for now.

Little did I know…

When a firefighter dies, it is because of duty.

Many died on that Monday, but in the last 20 years, the death toll unexpectedly rose. Many died from various injuries, including, but not limited to, the cancer that claimed my dad. My dad was one of those amazing, brave souls who spent tireless hours night and day digging through the rubble at ground zero searching for survivors or remains.

I remember visiting the firehouse shortly after and seeing a book with the pictures, names, and firehouses of the fallen. It was pages and pages of the bravest. I remember one story of a young fireman who was new to the job and never fought a fire. He was getting off that morning, after working overnight, when the call came in that the Twin Towers were on fire. Instead of going home, he hopped onto the truck to go help…he did not make it home.

He was a firefighter, so honor, duty, and courage were not mere words, but a character description. My father went to many funerals back then and the years to follow. He always squeezed into his uniform to attend the funeral of a fallen friend; I never understood the impact of this until the funeral of my dad.

When a firefighter dies, unceasing tears fall.

I remember the day my dad died. I visited him the night before, and he woke up and spoke my name. He wanted to tell me things. He wanted to write to me; he had beautiful handwriting. I left the hospital hopeful, only to receive a call the next morning that things were not looking good.

I hurried to the hospital, praying to God that I could see him before he died. And as I sat by his bedside, he took his last breath 15 minutes after I arrived, and I wept. I wept when the nurse came in to tell me he was gone. I wept at the peaceful look of his face. I wept when my brother came. I wept when the fire department pastor held us all. I wept when family and friends came.

I wept when we made the arrangements. I wept when we ordered the food for the repast. I wept when we drove up to the funeral and I saw hundreds of firefighters, police, veterans, army buddies all blocking off the streets of Brooklyn in homage to my father. I finally understood why he attended all those funerals.

I wept before the service. I wept with the many songs during service. I wept when they played taps (my dad was in the Air Force and in the Army Reserves; he retired as a master sergeant). I wept when the commissioner handed us the traditional firefighters’ final helmet with my dad’s badge number.

I wept as the fire truck lifted the casket up high as I thought my dad would really love this right now. I wept as we drove down the street and many bystanders were taking videos and pictures. I wept; my grandfather wept; my cousins, my uncles, and friends wept; we all wept.

When a firefighter dies, a new family is born.

When my dad died, we were inducted into the family of the fallen. We have been to several ceremonies. We have people assigned to us; they reach out to us and take care of us. We are not forgotten, and the service my dad provided for this country is not forgotten.

September 11th, we will never forget the lives that were lost.

In memory of my dad.

~

 

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