Throughout history there are events that alter the course of a nation, moments in time that define a generation. For the United States, one such event, one such moment, was the tragedy that took place on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The events of that day brought our nation together and rallied us around a city and a common cause. Now, on the 17th anniversary of that day, our nation comes together again, not only to remember what happened, but also, and perhaps more importantly, to honor the memory of those lost on that day. Bob Kane of the Village of Piedmont, a retired Fire Department of the City of New York firefighter and president of The Villages FDNY 343 Memorial Club, is one of those who is working to forever enshrine the memory of those first responders who bravely gave their lives on that day instead of reliving the horrific events that took place.
“It’s never about what happened that day,” he said. “Those stories are very upsetting. There’s no good reason to go over and over them. We honor the memory of those who gave their lives. That’s what’s important.”
Every year on Sept. 11, Kane’s club holds a special mass at St. Mark the Evangelist Church in Summerfield. Volunteers read the names of those who lost their lives.
And the list of people who died because of what happened that day is still getting longer.
According to the city of New York, last week the FDNY added 18 names of firefighters who have succumbed to rescue and recovery-related illnesses to the World Trade Center Memorial Wall. That brings the total number of FDNY firefighters who have lost their lives to illnesses after the fact to 177.
Each of those names is a story that may have been lost forever, and John Collins of Village Alhambra, a retired New York Port Authority officer, was part of the rescue and recovery effort and believes it’s important to preserve the stories of what happened.
“When we forget, we can make the same mistakes again,” he said. “Those were real people with real families who went to work that day and who wanted to go home at the end of the day.”
Collins was in Newark working as a court liaison. When he heard the news, the rest of his court cases were canceled. He headed to the airport to try to get to Manhattan to help in whatever way he could. He was told he was needed at the airport to help evacuate the airport. It was Sept. 13 before he was able to go and assist with the rescue efforts.
His agency lost 37 Port Authority officers and about an equal number of civilian employees that day, most of whom he knew.
“I was thinking, ‘Where are my friends and what can I do to help them?’” Collins said. “It was a gradual process coming to grips with the fact that there was nothing I could do for them. But I could try to recover those who were lost so their families would have closure.”
He assisted with rescue efforts until early October. At that point, “rescue” became “recovery.” He continued to assist with recovery until mid-November. But the long days and short nights didn’t end then.
“You were always tired,” Collins said. “Such long hours, so much stress. But we were on a mission. We owed it to our friends and colleagues to do right by them. It all became a blur.”
He would continue to work 12 hour days 11 out of every 14 days until the end of June 2003, long after recovery was declared over in May of 2002.
“The days seemed so long,” Collins said. “Then you wake up 22 months later and you think, ‘Where did the time go?’”
Collins’ story is one of perseverance, of grit and determination in the face of terrible loss, but it’s not his story alone.
“A big part of the story are those people who came together and did the right thing,” he said.
Kane said the story of 9/11 is about more than just one person. The litany of names read at Tuesday’s service will stand as testament to that fact.
He said that for the last 10 years, he’s had the same people coming back year after year to read names to keep the memory of those men and women alive. But Kane said he wouldn’t call them heroes.
“We don’t use the word ‘hero’ in FDNY, because everything we do, we do as a team,” he said. “I can walk into any firehouse anywhere in the world, and I have brothers there.”
Phill Stuart is a staff writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5332, or firstname.lastname@example.org.