Nearly 3,000 people died on Sept. 11, 2001. That still-staggering number included 341 firefighters, 60 police officers and 10 emergency medical technicians and paramedics. Several states away from New York, local firefighters still recall that Tuesday morning as if it were yesterday.
‘I remember feeling helpless’
Brian Blomstrom was sitting in fire investigation school a decade ago when he was taught a visual lesson he would never forget.
A friend nudged him in the classroom and showed him a text saying an airplane had hit one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. The two men were amazed, but they didn’t yet realize the significance of the event.
“As soon as the second plane hit the tower, our instructor stopped the class and everyone went upstairs to the common area with a television,” Blomstrom said. “We watched as the events unfolded. I remember feeling helpless, as I was away from home and the department at the time and couldn’t do anything to help my community, if necessary.”
Crystal Township Fire Chief Lonny Fitzpatrick and Orleans Township Fire Chief Leslie Doty have been fighting fires since 1968. Both men remember well the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I was coming back from Grand Rapids,” Doty recalled. “We were just coming into Lowell. We heard it on the radio that the first plane hit. We thought well, it’s just a freak accident. Then the second plane hit and we realized something else was going on.”
Fitzpatrick remembers not being able to believe what was happening.
“Seeing all of the destruction, all the horror on the faces of the people,” he said. “Still not believing it could happen to the U.S.”
Howard City Fire Chief Randy Heckman became a firefighter in 1993 and took over as chief seven years ago.
“It was a sad day in our country,” he said of 9/11. “Many people lost their lives. There were a lot of heroes that day.”
‘Communities depend on their first responders’
Blomstrom became a firefighter in 1995. He was named senior fire training officer for the Greenville Department of Public Safety in 2002 and was promoted to sergeant in 2008.
He said the events of 9/11 have changed the way he looks at responding to fire and police emergencies.
“I now have possible terrorism scenarios in the back of my mind,” he said. “While our general area may not suffer an attack of such a magnitude witnessed on 9/11, there is always a possibility for smaller incidents that may cause chaos and turmoil within our municipality. These incidents may not be all be specifically police and fire related, but the community will call upon all first responders for assistance until the threat or issue is mitigated.”
Blomstrom said one of biggest changes for firefighters since 9/11 is the necessity to receive training in unified incident command, preparedness, hazardous materials and managing extended and catastrophic scenes.
“We now train and work with a vast array of additional outside agencies, prepare for so many different responses, participate in exercises to increase our knowledge and readiness and plan to manage these incidents over many days or weeks — just in case we have an incident that mirrors 9/11,” he said. “The Twin Towers incident on Sept. 11 has forced police and fire agencies to move from response-oriented work to both pre-incident planning and specializing in managing these types of occurrences. Communities depend on their first responders to be able do so successfully as well.”
Doty and Fitzpatrick agreed their responsibilities have changed since that day 10 years ago.
“You’re a little more cautious of some things than you would have been before in some situations,” Doty said.
“As firefighter and fire chief, I have to make sure that my people have the training that they need,” Fitzpatrick said. “We are a lot more aware of our surrounding than we used to be. We ask a lot more questions than we have in the past.
“We are very proud to be firefighters,” he added.