Remembering Sept. 11: 2 years later

Local police, firefighters sense public's changed perceptions

Alisa Stingley / The Times

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, an alarm was received at Rescue Co. 3 of the New York City Fire Department. Eight men boarded their vehicle and sped toward the World Trade Center.

In Shreveport, Ronnie Jordan, an assistant chief with Shreveport Fire Department, watched at home on television as the first tower collapsed. With a sinking feeling he'd rarely experienced in 34 years of fire service, Jordan turned to his wife and said, "We just lost firefighters. That building was full of firefighters."

Jordan did not know Chris Blackwell, Ray Meisenheimer, Don Regan, Gerry Schrang, Tom Foley, Tom Gambino, Joe Spor or Brian Hickey. But he considers the Rescue Co. 3 crew and all of the FDNY firefighters who died Sept. 11 as brothers.

"You feel like," Jordan, 52, says today, "they were your guys."
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Two years after the terrorist attacks on New York City, Washington, D.C., and United Flight 93, those who serve in the public safety realm remain profoundly affected by the events of Sept. 11.

The tragedy has heightened their sense of duty and pride, they say. It also has led to sobering reflection on the dangers of the job. And they say they have seen more vocal, visible appreciation from the public they serve.

The loss in a single day to fire and law enforcement was staggering: 343 New York firefighters, 23 New York Police Department officers and 37 Port Authority Police Department officers.

"I thought how devastating that would be in our department," says Chad Burden, 27, a Shreveport firefighter.

Each officer, firefighter or EMT who died that day had gone to work with no idea of impending catastrophe on such a scale as the World Trade Center attacks.

"Really more than anything else, it brought home that you never know," says Cpl. Bill Goodin, 32, with Shreveport Police Department. "Every day you get up and go to work, you have to have an open mind. You have to maintain a degree of vigilance to be prepared."

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

For the nation, the loss of so many police and firefighters redefined the word hero. Trade Center workers who escaped have recounted how rescuers rushed by them - going up stairwells, toward disaster, as everyone else fled.

"The firefighter's job is to protect people and do good. They've always had high standing in the community because of that," says George Burke, spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington, D.C. "9/11 reaffirmed that, no doubt."

The attacks that cost so many law enforcement and firefighter lives have also heightened awareness of the job's risks. Detective Shannon Mack, 29, with Shreveport Police Department recalls watching the events on television with her husband, a Bossier City police officer.

"All I could think was, I can't imagine how many police officers and firefighters went," she says. "You are thinking of all the police officers and firefighters dying. It's a check on your mortality. It could happen here. It makes you look at things a little bit differently."

Many firefighters agree. On a recent weekday morning, those working at Central Fire Station in downtown Shreveport exhibited a sense of calm though knowing that at any moment an alarm could lead them into unknown danger - particularly here, at Station 1, which most likely would be among the first to respond to a local attack.

A large-screen television - under an equally large U.S. flag - is tuned to a fire training network. Images of flames engulfing a home appear on the screen as the firefighters talk about their jobs.

"Every time we leave this station we put our lives on the line," says firefighter Brandon Lee, 23. "Myself, I don't feel like a hero. I just feel like I'm doing my job. It's just another day at work."

The Trade Center attacks opened the eyes of Lee's family more to the nature of his job, he says. "My wife and her mom, when it happened, they asked, 'Is that what you do?' "

It is a dangerous occupation. The same year as the Trace Center attacks, the Shreveport Fire Department recorded injuries to seven firefighters. SFD in 2001 responded to 214 building fires, 187 gas leaks and removed four explosive bombs - among some 31,000 incidents.

Firefighters have their stories of close calls. Chad Alexander, 26, who has been with SFD since January 2002, recounts his experience fighting the two-alarm fire in June at the Progressive Men's Club on Cross Lake.

The unoccupied hall was burning rapidly when fire companies arrived. Alexander went inside with other firefighters.

"The captain said, 'Drop your equipment and get out.' He knew it was ready to come down. It was one of those sobering experiences. I told my wife, 'We got lucky.' It brought home how easy it is to lose one of your buddies."

Capt. Gary Addison, 45, has experienced such a loss. He was at the Dixie Cold Storage explosion in 1984 when fire training officer Percy Johnson was killed and assistant chief training officer James "Pat" Johnson was severely injured.

Addison had trained under Percy Johnson for 22 weeks. "It was like losing a family member."

Fire driver Jimmy Hill, 35, remembers watching television reports and video documentaries on the Trade Center attacks. He knew firefighters had died because he kept hearing bells going off - alarms on firefighters' gear that sound if one goes down and is unable to move.

"It was too long for them to be going off," Hill says. "They were not coming out."

The bond between firefighters was tragically apparent in December 2001, when SFD spokesman Brian Crawford delivered a $27,000 check to FDNY, money collected by Shreveport firefighters. In one FDNY station, Crawford noticed a poster with the pictures of every firefighter who was missing.

"Some of the faces were marked through with yellow highlight," Crawford, 39, recalls. "They said those were the ones where we've recovered remains. More than half the pictures were not marked off.

"All the New York firefighters I met, they all seemed to have the same disposition about the incident, the same resolve to continue to do whatever was necessary to get all their members out of ground zero."

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Talk to just about any local firefighter or law enforcement officer and he or she will say that since Sept. 11, the public has been much more vocal in its esteem of public safety workers.

Voters showed their appreciation last October by approving changes in sales tax collections that funded pay raises for Shreveport police and firefighters, Caddo deputies and Bossier City police and firefighters.

"I think people in general had always respected what firefighters and police officers do, but they were reminded again of the fact that officers and firefighters ... might be called on to give their lives," says Ed Baswell, 50, spokesman for the Bossier Parish sheriff's office.

"I've had people walk up to me in the grocery story and say, 'Thank you for all you do.' That wasn't happening much before 9/11."

Caddo Deputy Jackie Winston, 38, relates how she was in a nail salon a few months after 9/11 when a customer, a stranger, presented her with a gift certificate.

"She said, 'Ma'am, this is for you. We cannot thank people in law enforcement enough.' It makes me feel real good to know we have people who appreciate what we do," Winston says.

Cpl. Dean Willis, 33, with Shreveport Police Department, says more people today initiate contact with him than before 9/11.

"A lot of people come up out of nowhere and say thanks ... you're in my prayers," he says. "I feel like they've taken more notice of what we're doing."

SFD's Jordan recalls how he was at a restaurant with some colleagues a year after the terrorist attacks. A man with a boy who appeared to be about 5 approached their table. The man told the boy, "Those are real heroes."

Says Jordan, "He wanted to shake our hands."

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The Sept. 11 attacks in part gave Stuart Burgess a new direction for his life. At the time, the Shreveporter was getting a business degree from LSUS, but "I wasn't in a mood to sit behind a desk after I graduated," says Burgess, 25.

"Seeing what all the rescue workers and firefighters had done gives you newfound respect for the profession. I've always felt it's been an underappreciated profession."

Today Burgess is going through the Bossier City Fire Academy to become a firefighter. The terrorist attacks influenced his decision to some extent, along with encouragement from friends who were firefighters.

While Sept. 11 magnified the risks of fire service, it did not deter applicants locally. SFD's Crawford said he fielded a "tremendous" increase in inquiries in the months after 9/11, though the department is now under a hiring freeze. Burgess says family and friends have been supportive of his decision to enter this line of work.

"It's all positive - go get 'em," he says.

At the academy, he is learning how to diminish property damage and save lives - all for a starting salary of $27,800. He's aware of the risks but says, "You've got other guys watching your back. It's all about the teamwork. You put aside the fear and put it in the hands of God."

No doubt many of the firefighters and police officers who responded to the Sept. 11 attacks did the same.

"I definitely consider those guys from 9/11 heroes," Burgess says. "As far as myself, I'm not quite there yet."


http://www.shreveporttimes.com/html/...489F3B8D.shtml