Has it really been five years already?
The night of Sept 10th I had worked at one of the two fire departments I was a volunteer fire fighter at. We had gone on a record number of calls that night, and had no sleep. I got off duty at 7 a.m. and went home to my parents' house in Fredericksburg, VA, where I was temporarily living. I ate breakfast, and realizing I was due back on duty in less than 12 hours at my other fire department, I opted to sleep on the couch, rather than my bed. My theory was naps are on couches, sleeping is for beds. I only had time for a nap. I turned on the morning talk shows, and around 8 am started to doze in and out. As a result, I had the TV on when Katie Couric first started explaining what was happening in New York.
I was still trying to make sense of what Katie was talking about when my dad called and told us something was happening. He was at work in DC. A ward member had stopped by to help my mother with a project, and the two of them had invaded my nap room. Soon all 3 of us were glued to the TV. Just before the second tower was hit I had laughed and said that someone was about to have the pants sued off of them. In my mind at that point it was some stupid mistake. I was still picturing just a small personal plane making a wrong turn over the Hudson. But then we watched as the second tower was hit and fell. And then the rumors began about the Pentagon. There was still confusion about whether or not the Pentagon was on fire or actually hit. The news channels just didn't know. But I did.
Somewhere in the confusion and disbelief I had thought to find my fire department pager. Just as the rumors started about the Pentagon, my pager had lit up like the Fourth of July. It was a message I had never seen before, "ALL HANDS REPORT TO STATIONS IMMEDIATELY. PLEASE CONTACT STATIONS DIRECTLY." Usually our pages said things like, "Difficulty Breathing, E9, A9-1" I had never seen so many words or a sentence on my pager before. For some reason, that hit me more than the news reports. It wasn't a bad daydream anymore. It was happening and I was being called in to the station. This was for real.
I got back up, changed my clothes back into my uniform, and for some reason grabbed a plate of brownies. I still don't remember why I took the brownies. But at the time it seemed very important.
I will never forget the drive to the station that day. I was a volunteer at the Arcola Pleasant Valley Fire Department in Arcola, VA. Arcola was a black dot on a state map just north of Dulles Airport. It normally took me 1.5 hours or longer to make the drive there from Fredericksburg. But when I got on 95N the highway was deserted. I couldn't see any other cars headed north. The southbound lanes were jammed though. I went about ten miles when a cop pulled me over and asked what I was doing. He saw my uniform and apologized for stopping me. He explained they were limiting the cars headed north to DC and NYC. He said he would make sure they let me on through ahead, and to not worry about speeding. I zoomed the rest of the way to the station, getting there in less than 45 mins.
Our quiet little country station looked like a wake. Everyone was there- faces we hadn't seen in ages. It felt like a family reunion with old friends and family, and more food around than I have ever seen in one place before. The entire community had turned out to support us that day, and would continue to do so for the next several weeks. We had food everywhere. And then the pizza man just showed up with a dozen or more pizzas and said they were for us. I never did find out who sent them to us. There was a lot of food, but no appetites that day.
We stayed glued to the TV just like everyone at home did. We were ready to go at a moment's notice, but were never called on. Our station was just a few miles from the backside of Dulles Airport. As everyone remembers, all air traffic stopped for several days. Living so close to a major airport you get used to the constant sounds of jets overhead. I remember sitting outside on the bumper of a truck that day and realizing how quiet the world was. A few hours later I was back outside again, just thinking about what had happened when I heard the first F-17 begin to circle Dulles. That was when it really began to hit me. The world really was at war and nothing would be the same ever again.
Our ambulance crew was eventually called on that day to go fill in for another station that had been called over to the Pentagon. I spent a great deal of that day watching our CAD system, following the location of a certain paramedic I had dated, realizing he was at the Pentagon. We weren't getting very clear reports on the safety of the fire fighters and paramedics, and I was sick to my stomach worrying about him.
I stayed on duty for several days after that. I volunteered for a crew that was to go help with the recovery and relief efforts at the WTC. However, I never got called up to go because so many people just went up on their own. I spent many hours debating whether or not I should just get in my car and go. Part of me will always regret that I didn't drive up to New York to help. But I will never forget the experiences I had the Saturday following 9/11, and for that I am glad I didn't go to NY.
My fire department in Fredericksburg went out in full force the following Saturday to do an impromptu "Fill the Boot" campaign. I stood on a hot Saturday on a busy street corner in traffic holding a boot, and cried like a baby over and over again. I will never forget watching cars stop traffic to hand me money. I will never forget that not one person honked their horn or yelled as traffic backed up for miles around us as we collected the money. I will always remember the woman who stopped two lanes of traffic so she could write me a check for $10,000 and stuff it in my boot. And then she stopped to hug me and cry in the road with me. And no one honked. No one yelled or complained. But several people clapped, not one of them knowing how much she had just donated. I ran up to several car windows where little kids leaned out and put all the pennies their little hands could hold into my boot, while their mothers and fathers said, "God Bless You." I would run back to the corner and dump out my boot because it would get too heavy to hold. In just six hours, ten fire fighters on 4 corners collected more than $300,000, of which we kept none. We sent it all to NYC and the Pentagon.
There are many memories of 9/11, and this is mine. I was a first responder that day, proud to serve my country. I wasn't called into action, but I was ready and willing to go.
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