'Our job now is to never forget'

By Amy Carlson
Actor on NBC's "Third Watch" and former Glen Ellyn resident.

No words can describe the horror of Sept. 11th. Waking up that morning to the news that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center and the events that followed still feels like a nightmare. Having played a firefighter on NBC's "Third Watch" for a year, I could well imagine the scene at the Towers.

Seeing the Towers burn from my rooftop in Lower Manhattan, and watching the endless stream of emergency vehicles screaming down 14th St. toward downtown, I knew what the impulses of these heroic servants were. I also knew very well that not only were the stairwells filled with people fleeing down, but that they were crowded with firefighters going up.

And as the first Tower fell, my only thought was "they are all still in there, they haven't left the building." I knew that if there were people in the Towers that the members of the FDNY wouldn't leave. So I knew that I had just lost tremendous friends and colleagues; friends that I had made on the show, terrific firefighters and police officers. The question I didn't know was how many.

Days later it became known that the number was 12, the same number that was lost from one firehouse, my local Ladder Company #3 down the street. Twelve Firefighters and Police Officers that had worked as background actors on the show and many whom had had speaking parts as well were killed that day.

Firefighter Tom Foley, who taught me my first day how not be knocked over by backlash from the fire hose, and Rodney Gillis, a handsome, newly engaged NYPD ESU officer, whom I nicknamed "movie star," were both dead. The day was a day of terror, overwhelming loss, and mass confusion.

It's been a strange amalgam of emotions to be working on a show that portrays the Emergency Personnel of NYC during this time. Part of me felt that I should go down 'there' but I knew rationally that I wasn't trained.

I felt so helpless and at a loss. In the days that followed I realized there were things to do. I gathered my friends and we stood in lines around the block to give blood. Visiting 10 or so firehouses we delivered salads and socks ("we could use some salad with all these cookies ... and socks" was all I needed to hear), and with friends and some of my fellow castmates we set out on foot in my local battalion to check on our guys, and in many ways, because they recognized me as an actor, in particular one who played a 'brother,' I was theirs.

Giving these red-eyed, gray dusted, filthy guys who were really doing all of it for us five minutes to think about something else was how I became of service during that time. I felt so privileged because they let me support them in my little way. I think that because I portrayed them on TV, they assumed that I had glimpsed who they were, at the very least I know what it is like to put on a set of turnouts (firefighting gear).

I've always felt such gratitude for the opportunity to play a New York City Female Firefighter. One of the most profound letters I received last fall was from a Female Firefighter who thanked me in this time of great invisibility for the 27 Female Firefighters of the FDNY, for giving them a voice through my character.

When the show returned it was their character and courage that kept us going. Looking back I don't think they understood that completely. But they were keeping us all going. We all knew who was doing the hardest work for all of our sakes.

When a fire truck rounded a corner in the streets of New York, for a while everyone would stop and cheer. We were so grateful. I guess if something good could come of this tragedy, for me it was through all the funerals, wakes and visits I was privileged to meet so many incredible men and women. They taught me more about their incredible value of life and their strength was astounding.

Going back to work the first day was scary, but our technical advisors, fellow actors and background actors (all who were the 'real deal') again led us to greater understandings about continuing to do our work. After all they were leaving set to go back down to the 'pile.'

I felt tremendous pressure to portray my character in a way that would do justice to their story, to accurately and honestly portray their heroism, the way they serve simply and directly while at the same time being complex human personalities.

I wanted people everywhere to know them. I think all of us at "Third Watch" felt a heightened sense of responsibility to do good work in their honor. I would like to think that their service changed all of us in a profound way. We all learned about our own 'little ways' or big ways we can be of service to each other. I hope we hold on to those lessons. They say "Art imitates Life," but I hope that art can simply begin to reflect the beauty and tragedy we all experience in our lives. As we said in one of the final episodes last year: "We must never forget. Our job now is to never forget." Thank a firefighter or cop today. (And the next time you vote, give them a raise. They deserve it.)