Most who are old enough to remember the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, often remember where they were when they heard the terrible news, or the feeling in the pit of their stomach when they realized America was being attacked on our home soil. However, the story that I would like to share is my perspective as a public safety professional on that day and those things that, even 20 years later, still resonate through a multitude of emotions.
By September 11, 2001, I had 26 years in America's fire service with the City of El Cajon Fire Department and the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD). I held many positions, including a firefighter, paramedic, engineer, captain, and field battalion chief working at mostly busy stations and areas. On the morning of September 11, I was assigned as the Chief of Emergency Medical Services, an assignment I had held for the previous three years.
I had left my home at about 5 AM PT that morning, driving my fire department response vehicle to the LACoFD headquarters in East Los Angeles, which was about a 70-mile trip. I was about 20 minutes away from headquarters when the news stations began to report that a plane crashed into one of the World Trade towers in New York City. My first inclination was that a small plane struck the tower, and I began to consider how I might handle such an incident as the first in battalion chief. Still, not having any inkling of the scope of this emergency and what would later follow.
When it struck me that this was a commercial aircraft, I turned on my red lights and siren, maneuvering my way through the LA freeways focusing on getting to headquarters and our Emergency Operations Center at LA dispatch so I could get as much information as I could. Not long after I arrived, we all became aware that the Los Angeles Metro area was a potential target that later drove all commercial aircraft to be grounded.
I had to focus on something I had never dreamed of.
One or more commercial aircraft with hundreds of passengers on board with up to 60,000 gallons of jet fuel on each with a terrorist in control heading to one of the thousands of high-value, high-population targets within the County of Los Angeles. I was given the assignment of preparing for a mass casualty event the likes of which no one had ever seen before.
I gathered my team, and we began to pull together medical task forces, a concept we had used during the LA Riots. I was amazed how everyone developed a razor-sharp focus and got things done as I had never before witnessed while under the shadow of the reality that each person, including myself, had family near or in high-risk target areas. That brought home courage and teamwork.
The LA County Fire Department had developed a partnership with American Medical Response, a large provider of ambulance services to the county fire department, and me with one of their managers, Dave Austin.
That morning Dave and I talked of the need to transport countless patients to over 80 hospitals within the county if we were attacked. Dave identified 50 strike teams for a total of 250 ambulances by the time the towers fell. That brought home valued partnerships and the ability to phone a friend whom I know could make things happen. It also brought home the chilling concept of being attacked by an enemy.
Of course, the operational considerations and preparations consumed most of the next few days, which was a time we all held back the varied emotions that were building as we all witnessed a tragedy beyond description, beyond imagination. My wife, Teresa, was starving for information and spent the day watching the catastrophe on the television. When we finally talked, she told me of a reporter who was at ground zero. He was walking through the grey ash-filled air and reported that he was hearing beeping sounds coming from everywhere, and he was not sure what it was.
My wife told me she began to cry because she knew instantly that the noises were individual firefighter safety alarms designed to sound when the user stopped moving. That chorus of macabre sounds brought home a different reality that would later be counted as 343 lost firefighters.
In the days that followed, my wife and I remembered our visit to New York City in 1997. Of course, one of the things that I wanted to do was visit a fire station. After questioning an NYPD cop, he gave us directions to the closest firehouse, FDNY Station 54, the "Pride of Midtown," which they proudly had stenciled on the sides of the engine and ladder companies stationed there. Teresa and I were able to meet the crew on duty, and in fact, I went on a third alarm high-rise fire with my FDNY brethren. We later found out that the entire shift was killed on 9/11. That brought home the certainty that life is short, and we must cherish every moment.
My son, a Los Angeles county firefighter/paramedic out of fire station 37 at the time, felt a burning desire to help, so on his own time and his own dime, went to New York along with several others from his station. He was not sure what they would be doing but wanted to do something meaningful. He and his crew were picked up by FDNY Ladder 107 and were greeted by one of the firefighters somberly saying, "We knew you would come." My son later shared that he went to countless funerals and saw a whole different side of the tragedy, the personal side, and the sorrow was palpable.
That brought home the brotherhood that extended from one side of this great nation to the other, and it too was palpable.
In the days and weeks after 9/11, there were countless pictures of that fateful day, but one has replayed in my mind numerous times.
It was a picture of several FDNY firefighters beginning their long climb up the stairwells of one of the towers before it fell. Their faces showed their courage, resolve, and willingness to sacrifice, which is at the heart of every American firefighter, but on that day, it was being played out in real life. That brought home true courage.
We have all heard "We Will Never Forget" resonated at firefighter funerals. That is also true about 9/11. We should never forget the pain, the hurt, the tragedy, the vulnerability. But what I pray that we must never forget is that 9/11 can happen again. We must be prepared, courageous, self-sacrificing, caring for each other, and prepared to defend this great nation that I hope we are all proud to call home.
Chief Mike Metro spent 40 years in America's fire service, retiring from the Los Angeles County Fire Department in 2015 as the Chief Deputy providing executive management of the Department's Operations. He was also on the executive board of the IAFC's EMS Section.