The terrorist attacks on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001, are now part of history for those too young to remember what happened 18 years ago. For firefighters who were on the job, including Great Bend Deputy Fire Chief Brent Smith, the coordinated attacks that killed 2,996 people that day are not a distant memory.
“I know as time goes on it’s easy to forget,” Smith said Wednesday when he spoke to the Kiwanis Club. “It’s my duty as an older guy to pass it on to the younger ones in the department. Hopefully, we’ll never forget.”
The September 11 attacks, referred to a 9/11, were conducted by Islamic terrorists in the group al_Qaeda who hijacked four passenger airliners. Two planes crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center in New York and a third plane crashed into the Pentagon. The fourth plane was flown toward Washington, D.C., but crashed into a field in Pennsylvania after its passengers stopped the hijackers.
Smith was out of the country on 9/11, on a fishing trip in Canada with several of his buddies. But he was a friend of Thomas J. Foley, a 32-year-old veteran of the FDNY who died that day in New York. He was a member of Rescue Company 3 that responded to the Twin Towers.
“He died doing what he loved,” Smith said.
Today, the World Trade Center site is known as “Ground Zero,” but firefighters still call it “The Pile.”
The events of 9/11 brought Americans together and also brought a lot of attention to first responders. It wasn’t all positive but shedding a light on challenges led to positive changes. Authorities realized that police and firefighters didn’t have a reliable way to share communication in response to 9/11, but today crisis situations are handled by a unified command.
We’ve also learned more about 9/11-related diseases such as cancer or severe respiratory disease. For firefighters, there are new standards for when it is considered safe to take off their air packs after entering a building filled with carcinogenic substances, Smith said.
After 9/11, the nation grieved together and people helped each other. “The USA was a different place,” Smith said. More than 250 nonprofit organizations were founded and raised over $700 million in two years.
Smith is new to Great Bend but is aware that his fellow firefighters haven’t forgotten 9/11.
“We still do community projects for 9/11,” Smith said. This past weekend, Chief Luke McCormick and two other Great Bend Firefighters participated in charity “stair climbs,” climbing the equivalent of the 110 stories of the World Trade Center to raise money for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, and on Wednesday the department observed a moment of silence along with others across the nation. The GBFD’s social and charity committee plans to sponsor at least one Honor Flight this year.
The lessons of 9/11 have not been forgotten.
“Could it ever happen again?” Smith asks. “Of course. But hopefully, we are better prepared.”