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Reflect, Revere, Remember 9/11

L-R: Asst. Chief of Operation George Brown, Firefighter/Paramedic Mike Garvey, VIFR Fire Chief Hank Lipe standing with Artifact #I-0082G, an I-beam from the Twin Towers, at Mozart's Requiem at VHS. Photo by Karen Pruett
L-R: Asst. Chief of Operation George Brown, Firefighter/Paramedic Mike Garvey, VIFR Fire Chief Hank Lipe standing with Artifact #I-0082G, an I-beam from the Twin Towers, at Mozart's Requiem at VHS. Photo by Karen Pruett

September 11, 2001, 5:50am PST, Vashon Island, my house, blue skies, sunshine, a perfect fall day, a perfect day all over the United States of America.

Relaxing with a cup of coffee in hand, I turned on the Today Show and realized that one of the World Trade Center towers was on fire, it had been hit by a plane.  My first thought was a prayer for the people in that horrific situation and my second was “that hole is huge.”  Then a passenger jet came into view and struck the other tower, it was 6:03am PST and 2977 innocent people would lose their lives that day.

Instinctively I jumped to my feet and screamed, “God Damn You Bin Laden!” 

My home was under attack and I knew Bin Laden was somewhere on Earth celebrating.  I knew the United States had been drawn unwillingly into another war and I knew my young son and daughter would be fighting it.  Anger and anguish is still how I feel ten years later.  My son is in the Navy stationed at NAS Belle Chasse, LA, and my daughter is married to a sailor on the USS John C. Stennis.  My sister, a Navy veteran, lost friends in the Pentagon.  I am a Navy daughter and now a Navy mother, I understand why my children are fighting the war on terror, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. 

My country, so united that first year, is now fractured in the aftermath of what we now call 9/11.

At Vashon Island Fire and Rescue, our department gathered upstairs and watched the horror unfold.  Anger and anguish was palpable as they watched hundreds of brother firefighters and police die trying to save those trapped and today in their private quarters a poster of the faces of lost brothers hangs on one wall, a poster with the names on another.  Firefighters will never forget 9/11 anymore than the Navy can forget Pearl Harbor and the need to honor those lost is something we both understand.

Ten years later homage came by UPS from JFK airport’s Hangar 17.

VIFR business office receptionist Linda Hamilton recalls, “We opened the box and looked at each other, “What the heck is that?”  “It’s a piece of the Twin Towers,” replied Chief Lipe and the entire station fell silent as one by one they touched Artifact #I-0082G.  This 95lb, 2.5-foot tall, blackened and twisted chunk of I-beam is one of hundreds to find shelter at fire departments in all 50 states, in a year or so our country’s broken heart will grace VIFR, part of an interactive memorial that invites you to remember our fallen.

Firefighter/EMT Darren Buxton recalls his father’s story of how, in the late 60’s, the steel for the Twin Towers was cast in New York and then shipped to Bethlehem Steel in Seattle for fabrication.  For Larry Buxton, Merle Sauer and Mel Carell it was a source of pride helping in the construction of what were then the tallest buildings in the world.  Now the steel has come back to us.

Many have noticed the new slab of concrete that replaced two fine, old cedars in front of VIFR; this is where our memorial will be built.  Todd Gateman of CalPortland donated the concrete and Earl VanBuskirk of Island Lumber donated the reinforcing steel.  The day of the pour Al Bradley donated his time to smooth the pad, as did an off-Islander who spotted the concrete truck and stopped to see what was going on.

Originally the memorial would have been near the flagpole, but when island arborist Michelle Ramsden informed the chief that both trees were dying and a danger to the public, VIFR knew instantly that the cedars had given up their space to the memorial.  It was fitting that a symbol of our state would be replaced with a symbol of our country.  The trees were ground up and used as beauty bark all around the station, enriching the soil as cedars do naturally.  VIFR, wanting this memorial to be ‘just right’ for Vashon, was touched by coincidence.

Bob Horsley, the landscape architect working with VIFR, says his goal is a meaningful narrative of 9/11 that includes the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and Shanksville, PA, the crash site of Flight 93. 

The memorial will incorporate two columns of basalt from Marenakos Rock Center in Preston, WA.  The Chief liked the idea that basalt grows stronger over time representing Pillars of Strength, and the WTC I-beam will be placed in one of them. They’ve chosen Pennsylvania Blue Slate, representing Flight 93, for the stepping stones and have a FDNY firefighter’s helmet, which will be bronzed or somehow weatherproofed.  While final plans have not been completed, they hope to have a firehose entwined up the columns representing the firefighters who lost their lives and a debris field that represents America picking up the pieces and pressing forward.  Either the stepping stones or benches may represent the Pentagon’s five-sided shape.   Many Island stone and bronze artists, including Chuck Irish, have been contacted for advice. 

You can also play a role in bringing this narrative to life by donating to the 9/11 Memorial Fund through Vashon’s Puget Sound Credit Union, located on Vashon Hwy and Bank Road.   Vashon’s Fraternal Order of Eagles 3144 has donated $1000 and Tom Bangasser $250, altogether VIFR has collected $2000 of the estimated $40,000 needed. 

That equates $5.25 for each adult on Vashon.  Of course, penny drives and car washes by our kids are also very welcome and very much appreciated.

Just before the tenth year anniversary I sat with the Chief and several firefighters and we remembered that sad day.  Captain Josh Dueweke and Battalion Chief Mark Brownell both lived in the Seattle area and were working at Evergreen Medic 1 and Magnolia Rural/Metro, they were at home when they became aware of the tragedy and went to their stations to be with their brothers. Volunteer Firefighter/EMT Joey Mayorkinos was a sophomore at Seattle Christian High School; it wasn’t until after he pursued a career as a firefighter that he understood the scope of the calamity for the fire departments nation-wide. 

Firefighter/Paramedic Bill Buchanan was enroute to Scotland to get married and found out about the disaster after he arrived at his destination, he grieved thousands of miles away from his brothers at Evergreen Medic 1, his own joyous occasion dampened by the catastrophe. 

Island native Firefighter/EMT Darren Buxton was at VIFR, he said the entire department was compelled to be together, but a profound stillness had settled over the group as they watched their New York brothers die. 

Chief Hank Lipe was in Hampton, New Hampshire, at Hampton Fire/Rescue, just north of Boston, MA.  American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the North Tower, and United Airlines Flight 175, which crashed into the South Tower, originated in Boston.  The order came to Hampton Fire/Rescue to ‘hold your positions’ because of their proximity to Boston, but afterward the department created a revolving schedule so the brothers could assist FDNY during the funerals and recovery effort.

The Lipe family visited Ground Zero on New Years Day 2002 and were allowed on the viewing platform reserved for the families of victims; the chief remembers the flowers and mementos left by loved ones.  He also remembers how the personnel working on the Pile, as the ruins came to be known, suddenly stopped and several hundred firefighters lined up and saluted as the body of one of their own was recovered.  He said the site became “Vashon quiet,” like the stillness that we enjoy at sunset, and found that to be remarkable in the largest city in the United States.  He was startled to gaze on what once were the tallest buildings in the United States to see the 16-acre Pile that dwarfed the people and equipment surrounded by shattered buildings. 

“It was the most moving experience of my life.  Seeing it, living it, I want to make sure that our memorial tells that story.  We owe it to them.”

In 2006, on the fifth anniversary, an unusual special aired on the History Channel.  Charles Pellegrino, a vulcanologist who lost a cousin in the North Tower, narrated “American Vesuvius.”  He was struck that the collapse of the towers was very much like an ash cloud column collapse and through his research he was able to explain how a few survived, including John Morabito, an FDNY firefighter.  Our proximity to volcanoes drew me to the 9/11 special.

John’s station, Ten House, is the only firestation at Ground Zero, they heard the first plane hit and were the first firefighters at the scene.  They lost six members that day and John is the only firefighter in the lobby of the South Tower to survive the collapse. Two pieces are left from the original Engine 10, part of the hood and a sidepiece are displayed in the station.  The burnt wreckage of Ladder 10 was found weeks later under forty feet of debris.

FDNY Ten House was severely damaged in the collapse and without their house or their equipment the firefighters worked on the Pile recovering fallen brothers.  They had lost their brothers, their home, their equipment and could no longer protect their neighborhood.  But their neighborhood, Battery Park City, did not forget them and rallied around Ten House determined to get it back.  A spare truck was designated Engine 10 and it went back into service on November 3rd, 2001, but Ladder 10, John’s rig, was still out of commission.  Enter Tom McDonald.

FDNY Assistant Commissioner of Fleet Services Thomas McDonald was in the street directing FDNY vehicles into position when the South Tower collapsed; he made it into the lobby of the North Tower to safety and then found shelter in the Winter Garden when the North Tower collapsed.  The very next morning he was on the phone to the Seagrave Company whose employees in Clintonville, WI pulled together to replace 54 of the more than 90 vehicles destroyed and set new production records.  When the first trucks rolled into New York City in February of 2002; they were placed on display at the Nassau Coliseum.  It was there that John Morabito saw Seagrave’s flagship truck with a mural of the famous image of firefighters raising the flag at Ground Zero.  He placed a folded up Ten House T-shirt in the windshield, the number 10 facing out and, although it was not meant for them, people begin to say “that’s Ten’s truck.”

But in April 2002, Seagrave’s inspirational truck was presented to Ladder 10 Company.  Engine 10 also received a new truck, one of the first four FDNY vehicles to roll out of Clintonville.  Ten House was rebuilt by November 5, 2003; John and his brothers had come home.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes “Ten House Still Stands,” a symbol of the determination and grit of the FDNY; and of the American spirit. 

In June of 2010, I had the pleasure of meeting Tom McDonald at my niece’s wedding as his friend became her father-in-law.  I was shocked when I learned that he was ‘the truck guy’ from the Ten House website: http://www.fdnytenhouse.com/, I’d always felt it God’s plan for Tommy to have survived to be there for his brothers.  Tommy McDonald and Jon Morabito were on my mind when I touched the piece of twisted steel in VIFR’s office and I realized that John had walked on or near it as he searched for the fallen.  In that moment I knew that Vashon Island is now forever connected to Ten House.  A reminder of the courage and sacrifice of our firefighters, police, military personnel and civilians.  A reminder that we are all linked in small, yet extraordinary ways. 

A reminder of the day when We The People were One Nation Under God.