What Have We Learned Since 9/11?

As usual you are reading this long after it has been typed.  The 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is this weekend, and it is weighing heavily in my mind and heart.  I’d like to spend this article talking about firefighter Daniel Suhr.  Danny was with Engine Company 216 at FDNY and was 37 years old on 9/11/2001. 



Engine 216 was one of the first-in units to the twin towers and while setting up on the south tower, Danny was hit by a jumper and killed.  Danny had been a firefighter since 1983.  The seven other members of Danny’s crew stayed with him until he was transported to Bellevue Hospital.  A few minutes after he left the scene, the south tower collapsed.  The seven firefighters in Danny’s crew survived as a result of remaining at Danny’s side.  Even in his death, he saved seven firefighters’ lives.  Although FDNY Chaplain Father Mychal Judge was designated as “Victim 0001,” many believe that Danny was the first “official” death from the FDNY.  If he officiated Danny’s funeral services, Father Judge would likely quote John 15:13 – “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

That was what Danny did, but it is far from who Danny was.  Danny was a firefighter’s firefighter.  His father was a firefighter, his brother was a firefighter, and his sister was a police officer.  Danny came from a very tough family steeped in self-sacrifice, dedication, tradition, and above all bravery.  One of Danny’s many nicknames was Captain America and his love for the job did not end when he went off-duty.  Whenever he went out socially, he would point out the exit doors and tell everyone to meet should something happen. 

Before Danny died, he was the captain of the FDNY football team and played semi-professional football for the Brooklyn Mariners.  Pudgy Walsh, a decorated retired firefighter and coach of the Mariners stated that he was not at all surprised that Danny was the first one killed on 9/11.  “Danny was one of the best human beings I’ve met in my time on this earth.  He was the most complete player I coached in 54 years of coaching the Mariners.”  Above being a good friend, a brave firefighter, and an excellent football player, Danny was a devoted father and husband.  Danny left behind his wife Nancy, who he began dating in grammar school, and their two-year old daughter, Brianna.  Although he was big and brave, he could get fairly mushy over his daughter.  As his wife Nancy recalls, “He loved Brianna more than life itself.”

Danny was like many other firefighters that responded to the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan.  Many reported arriving at the scene and seeing civilians jumping from as high as the 100th story.  I’m sure they all thought, “How bad is it in there that the better alternative is to jump?”  Some reported shaking hands with their crews and saying their goodbyes, knowing that they would die soon.  Nevertheless, they entered the building, rescued and guided civilians to safety and tragically, 343 of them never made it home to their families.  Those 343 firefighters represent the epitome of the bravery that exists within the modern fire service.  Sadly, it often takes a 110 story building with heavy smoke, fire and people jumping from it to make us think about how dangerous our jobs are.  This is to say, that we don’t often answer roll call and then think, “I’m going to die in the line of duty today.”  This is not to say that we shouldn’t.  However, as Brunacini would say, if the first-in engine crew were sitting in the cab, holding hands, and listening to religious music, then we may be thinking about it too much. 

However, it is these thoughts surrounding the task level work that we do that can help prevent injuries and line of duty deaths; we can call these thoughts “death avoidance.”  As usual, almost two-thirds of the line of duty deaths each year (excluding 2001) is due to overexertion/stress/medical with the next largest percentage usually motor vehicle collisions.  When we work out, maintain a healthy diet, and try not to break the speed of sound while driving to an emergency, we are practicing this “death avoidance.”  Nevertheless, some of us will be faced with an incident such as 9/11, where we have to rapidly perform a risk versus benefit evaluation and act, even though there may be a high probability of serious injury or death.

For the command staff at the Trade Center 15 years ago, no one could have thought that a total structural collapse could have occurred so quickly.  Although many of the command staff discussed the possibility of collapse, most considered it to likely be a localized or partial collapse.  There was no precedent or frame of reference for the command staff and unfortunately, the unthinkable occurred before anyone considered it even possible — including those of us watching on television.

So, what have we learned since 9/11?  First, I’m sure everyone will agree that 9/11 was a game changer, in many ways.  It was a tragedy of epic proportions; call it Generation X’s Pearl Harbor.  Terrorism, having been previously localized and small in scale, was brought to a new and nightmarish level.  At least for the first few hours, the largest and arguably best prepared fire department the world has ever seen was overwhelmed.  Shortly after the first tower collapsed, an unidentified radio transmission was captured from what was believed to be an FDNY chief to the dispatch center that said, “George, have them mobilize the Army.  We need the Army in Manhattan.”  It’s been my observation that we, the fire service, have torn down a lot of walls — figuratively speaking — over the years.  Gone are the days of departments fighting at emergency scenes over jurisdiction and operations.  Today, we tend to work together better than we ever have in the past.  This will be critical when the next 9/11 occurs.  Next, we need to be prepared for the worst, even that which we cannot imagine.  Prior to 9/11, if I told you that we would have a terrorist attack that would be so vile, that it would leave hundreds of emergency responders dead and civilians who are forced to hold funeral services for their loved ones without a body in the casket, you would think I was crazy. 

Today, we have to be thinking about coordinated, multi-layered attacks in both major cities and small towns.  Finally, we need to take care of ourselves and each other.  Being able to quickly look at an incident, during which you truly feel in your soul, will take your life, and continue to prosecute it, requires a special type of human being.  It requires a Captain America, much like Firefighter Danny Suhr.  We should not be remembering him only on 9/11.  His daughter is now 17 years old and has had to grow up without her father.  These are the long-term effects of a line of duty death.

As a side note, I was fortunate enough to visit the 9/11 memorial in Manhattan a few years ago.  If you are ever in the vicinity, I urge you to make time to visit.  It is emotionally overwhelming on many levels and is an excellent representation of the courage and bravery that existed that day among our brothers in the FDNY.  God bless them and God bless their surviving families.

Be safe and do good.

Dr. David A. Greene has over 25 years of experience in the fire service and is currently the deputy chief with Colleton County (S.C.) Fire-Rescue. He holds a PhD in Fire and Emergency Management Administration from Oklahoma State University and an MBA degree from the University of South Carolina. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy and is a Nationally Registered Paramedic. He can be reached at dagreene@lowcountry.com

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