After 20 years, the images of the September 11 attacks are still every bit as haunting and surreal to most Americans.
To those who survived, who lost a loved one or friend, or to those who answered the call for help, 9/11 lives within them and will do so forever.
A beautiful New York City morning was shattered and the aftermath is being felt nearly 20 years later, with the country’s longest war only now officially over.
It began with American Airlines Flight 11 slamming into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.
Just 17 minutes later, at 9:03 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175 crashed into the South Tower. The nation would soon learn that the attacks were orchestrated by the militant Islamist extremist group al-Qaeda.
Some people had already died. But, in time, those numbers would pale in comparison by the time the day was over.
Others trapped and answering the call for help were the firefighters and police officers of New York City. Chicago Fire Department Chief Bob Hoff, Western Springs firefighter Jimmy Regan, and Chicago Fire Department Captain Pat Maloney were watching from afar.
Hoff was the director of the department’s training academy. His wheels were already spinning, with their counterparts in New York City in dire need of help.
Regan had a firefighter friend working at O’Hare Airport, where there was confusion and concern all around.
That sentiment is easily understood, with a nation full of uncertainty on what could be next and when and where it will happen.
Within one hour and 42 minutes, the towers had collapsed. Hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 had flown into the Pentagon and United Airlines Flight 93, believed to be headed for Washington DC as well, had crashed into the Pennsylvania countryside near Shanksville after the plane was retaken by brave passengers aboard.
“We didn’t care about getting hurt. We wanted to go out and help, and that was a matter of reaching out to the Fire Commissioner at the time, Jim Joyce, who was one of the best the city ever had,” Hoff said.
With Commissioner Joyce’s approval, firefighters from the city and surrounding suburbs hit the road for Ground Zero. With 75 bottles of compressed air, saws and 15 Chicago passenger vans, the first responders headed to New York.
By the morning of September 12, the firefighters had crossed the bridge into Manhattan and reported to a command staff FDNY Chief.
“Fire engines crushed to two feet high, and then as time went on, I found out that all my friends in Rescue 2 are dead. So probably, by the end of the day I had 12 people who are close to me who are dead. I couldn’t believe it,” Regan said.
They divided into groups and worked 10 to 12-hour shifts, working the mountains of rubble with hopes of finding someone alive.
“In 47 years of fire service, I’ve never smelled anything like it before or after that. It was a smell of something burning, and we’ve all smelled plastic, wood, mattresses, you name it. But that smell permeated your clothes,” Hoff said.
While everyone was hopeful survivors would be found, none were at that point. Nevertheless, bodies would be found, including those of several FDNY members.
“Their pride, if they found one of their members, they removed him. Nobody else did. That’s an unwritten law of the fire service,” Hoff said.
It was dangerous, to say the least. Hoff recalls a slab of concrete was about to fall. The ‘All Call to Clear’ the site was given and they scattered, running blocks away toward the Hudson River. His son, also a firefighter, was there at Ground Zero as well.
For two hours, they could not reach each other due to the loss of radio and cell service.
When they weren’t working Ground Zero, they were helping out the firehouses, cooking and cleaning while attending funerals.
“There were seven or eight funerals a day. You had memorial services, funerals. It was heart-wrenching,” Regan said.
They met men like FDNY Captain John Viggiano, who lost two sons in the attack and formed friendships that last to this day.
An FDNY member paid homage to CFD Battalion Chief Herbie Johnson, who died in a Chicago fire in 2012 by donating a piece of steel from the towers in his name to the city. It’s now part of a memorial in a park at 106th Street and Western Avenue.
On his last day on the job, FDNY members surprised Pat Maloney, who recently retired as a Battalion Chief of Special Ops.
As they head back to New York City to mark this 20th anniversary while keeping their promise never to forget, they ask you to do the same for those who perished that fateful day and for those who lived.