On eve of Sept. 11 anniversary, New Brunswick firefighters reflect on 'sombre' day
'Probably everybody today can tell you where they were when they heard about it'
Dwight Robertson can still hear the beeps ringing from the air tanks of New York City firefighters who rushed into the World Trade Center before it collapsed.
The beeps the Riverview firefighter heard on TV as he watched the destruction are known as a 'man down' alarm.
They signal a firefighter is in trouble and needs help — an unmistakable sound for any firefighter.
"When these alarms are going off … as a firefighter, one of your brothers or sisters are in danger," said Robertson, a captain with the Riverview Fire Department. He has worked as a firefighter for 30 years.
"To hear all those alarms going off after the towers collapsed, it's just crazy … you feel helpless."
Twenty years ago tomorrow, on Sept. 11, the hijacking of four planes by Islamic extremists led to almost 3,000 deaths — in New York City, the Washington area and the Pennsylvania countryside.
Two planes were flown into the World Trade Center in New York, killing more than 2,600 people, including 343 firefighters who responded to the scene.
"Probably everybody today can tell you where they were when they heard about it," Robertson said.
'Scared to death'
Robertson was cutting firewood outside his Riverview home when his wife urged him to come inside to watch the news.
What was unfolding left him horrified.
"I was scared to death," he said. "Being in the career that I'm in … holy smokes, this is major. This is big."
So the Boston native did the only thing that made sense to him. He went to the fire hall to watch the news with his colleagues.
"People can relate to what you're dealing with because they're going through the same thing," he said.
Almost 175 kilometres away, Steven Fraser was building a shed in his backyard with his grandfather.
Fraser had the day off from his job as a firefighter with the Fredericton Fire Department.
It was a warm, sunny day in New Brunswick's capital, without a cloud in the sky.
His wife called out from the window to tell the two men a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. At first, Fraser thought the crash was just "a weird accident involving a small plane."
But as they watched the news unfold, Fraser said his grandfather, the former chief of the Barkers Point Volunteer Fire Department and Second World War veteran, "started to look grim."
Fraser's grandfather, Cecil Hamilton, had lived through the Depression and enlisted after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
"The look on his face was almost like, 'Here we go again.' "
For days following the suicide attacks, New Brunswickers were glued to the television.
On his 6 a.m. walk to work on Sept. 12, Fraser could see lights flickering from the TV screens inside people's windows.
There were barely any fire calls that day.
"It was very sombre, it was very heavy, it was a deep sense of loss for society and our profession," said Fraser, now the assistant deputy chief of operations for the Fredericton department.
'Going in when everybody else was running out'
Glenn Sullivan, president of the Atlantic Provinces Professional Fire Fighters Association and platoon captain for the Fredericton Fire Department, recalled firefighters asking to go to New York City to help.
Both the Fredericton and New York City fire departments are part of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
"It sort of hit home knowing that it's our own that's going in," said Sullivan.
"We fully realized what type of attitude they would've had … they'd be going in when everybody else was running out."
People across the province began raising money for the families of the fallen firefighters.
Firefighters in Fredericton helped replace some of the bass drums for the pipe and drum bands at the New York Fire Department.
"They ended up wearing out the drums from all the funerals," Sullivan said.
A taste of New Brunswick
Meanwhile, Robertson and his colleagues wanted to do something truly New Brunswick.
New York City firefighters who visited the Riverview fire hall years prior had raved about New Brunswick's maple syrup.
"They were used to things like table syrups, like Aunt Jemima … where ours is true, traditional maple syrup."
Robertson and three other firefighters drove to New York City in December 2001 and delivered New Brunswick maple syrup for the families of the firefighters killed in the attacks.
Up in smoke
Robertson recalled the buildings that surrounded Ground Zero were still covered in dust and fires still burned, nearly three months later.
"It was eerie, just eerie," he said. "It was quiet and you could still smell the smoke in the air."
The Riverview group also visited one of the local fire halls, a common practice for firefighters touring other cities.
Robertson saw a pile of smashed radios piled in a corner. There were old badges, helmets and broken ladders salvaged from the rubble after the fall of the towers.
"Doors off a fire engine basically twisted into unrecognizable pieces of metal," he said.
Robertson returned home to his family on Christmas Eve — a holiday he'll never forget.
"Made you appreciate … when you go home," he said. "A lot of people didn't that day."
The 1st anniversary
A year later, firefighters from across New Brunswick headed to New York City to pay homage to the 343 fallen firefighters in a parade and ceremony.
Sixteen firefighters from Fredericton piled into vans to join their counterparts from all over the world for the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I remember kind of turning the corner and it was just a sea of firefighters dressed in uniform as far as you could see in either direction," Fraser said.
People were hanging out of windows, waving, cheering and yelling "We love you."
Fraser said he felt like a VIP and part of the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
"Here I am a young guy from Barkers Point marching in a parade down Eighth Avenue in New York City … it's something you never would dream of."
During his visit, Fraser saw the window display of a clothing store showcasing the dust that had come into the store when the attacks happened.
"It looked like a couple of centimetres of dirty snow," he said.
At Grand Central Station, billboards with messages such as 'Have you seen my brother?' and 'Have you seen my husband? Please call' were preserved as a memorial.
Signs that were attached to buildings were twisted and broken off. Some of the buildings bore what looked like giant scars from the debris that had hit them, Fraser said.
"You could see the damage everywhere you looked," he said. "It was just enormous."
Life after Sept. 11
Sullivan said many people still don't realize what happened to firefighters during and after the attacks, including the impact on their mental health and the occupational cancers they developed from toxic dust exposure as they dug through the rubble.
For 20 years, he has made it his mission to make sure firefighters and their families are taken care of.
"A lot of people don't forget 9/11, but they forget the impacts afterwards of 9/11."
Since their trip to New York in 2002, some firefighters in the Fredericton group have been promoted, four have retired and one has died.
For Fraser, who will retire next month, the visit to New York will always be a memorable part of his 29-year career.
"It was a very emotional and very sombre and somewhat rewarding experience to know that you were part of history," he said.
On Saturday, Robertson will be at the Riverview fire hall with his fellow firefighters — just as he was 20 years ago.
"From everything bad that has happened from that day, it definitely shows how strong we are as a family."