Local firefighters reflect on tragic day

Published 12:58 am Sunday, September 11, 2011

Three local firefighters traveled to New York City following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to lend a hand, but took away life lessons.

Lt. Ronnie Reynolds, Firefighter Joe Mack Russell and Fire Marshal Pat Weaver drove a truck to New York City two days after the terrorist attack occurred, with the purpose of helping any way they could.

While their goal was to help with search and rescue, by the time they reached the city people entering the site without authorization forced the state to close access to ground zero, allowing only New York City firefighters access, Weaver said.

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Darkness had fallen by the time they reached the city, so they spent the first night in the truck, Russell said. The next day they met up with another group of firefighters heading towards ground zero. On the trek there Russell remembers scores of people lining the roads, throwing them socks, cigarettes, gloves and flags to bring to ground zero, sort of like a reverse Mardi Gras parade.

However, when they got close to ground zero, they were told only New York personnel were allowed access, so Russell, Weaver and Reynolds had to walk the two miles back where they started. The three found other ways to lend a hand. They manned fire stations in case other calls came in, they talked and prayed with New York firefighters who lost their brethren in the building collapses, and they unloaded trucks that brought large amounts of donations to New York fire stations. Russell remembered meeting film personality Billy Baldwin who visited some of the New York City fire departments in the aftermath.

“We were happy to go over there and lend any hand we could,” Russell said.

During their visit Weaver remembered they heard the names of missing firemen being called over the radio. He said that stuck out in his mind, knowing that the day those firemen left for work they had no idea they would not return.

“They did their job knowing how dangerous it is, but ended up paying the price for doing their job,” Weaver said.

When the three were leaving for the trip Reynolds remembered the look on his then 8-year-old son’s face.

“That made me aware that there’s nothing more precious than that, your family,” Reynolds said.

Russell also served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves after the attack, and in 2003 he was sent to Iraq. He said he took what he saw on that trip to New York City into consideration while overseas, and that experience made him happy to be able to serve in the war.

Weaver believes the Sept. 11, 2001, assaults on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon will not be the end of terrorist attacks in the United States.

“I think we need to remain vigilant. I don’t think that’s the end,” Weaver said. “Radical Islamists want to take over the world and (9-11) is just the beginning I think.”

Since 9-11 fire departments across the nation have been implementing additional training and other security measures to prepare firefighters for terrorist attacks. Fire Chief Keith Brown said his department has attended training for weapons of mass destruction, hazardous materials and how to deal with anthrax, all of which were offered at no cost to the department through the Department of Homeland Security.

“We’ve had to expand our whole role as responders,” Brown said.

Russell said after 9-11 there were a number of anthrax scares to which the department had to respond, which usually required firefighters to enter buildings with air packs and to spray suspicious substances with bleach. One such event at a local church turned out to be spilled baby powder, Russell said.

Picayune’s fire trucks now have radiation detectors.

“That’s probably something that you would never thought about before,” Russell said.

Sept. 11, 2001, has made emergency responders in Picayune more aware of their surroundings, Brown said. If emergency personnel, including firefighters, see a suspicious vehicle parked where it was not supposed to be, such as near a water tower, questions would be asked.

“We are more prepared and have more capabilities than we had back then, but it’s because we were forced into it,” Brown said.