Los Angeles Fire Department
September 11, 2001
World Trade Center
New York, New York
Response to New York City
Years from now, each of us will remember where we were and what
we were doing at the moment we first learned of the terrorist
attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. The
intensity of emotion as we watched an unspeakable horror unfold
on live network television has forever seared that moment into
our hearts and minds. Many of the feelings experienced by firefighter
during and after the attacks on September 11th are shared by all
Americans. Grief, outrage, pride, and patriotism are but a
few of those that come to mind. But for firefighters, the
cut was even deeper. The blood sacrifice of so many of our
brothers stirred up emotions that could only be felt and fully understood
by fellow firefighters.
The third group of LAFD members who helped in New York has been called "the freelancers". They were the 30 to 40 firefighters who flew to New York on their own, with the simple goal of finding any way to help. These "givers" represent the best of what firefighters are all about. Our freelancers arranged time off at their expense, paid for their own transportation, lodging, and meals, and literally spent their "vacations" in New York City lending a hand. But before they left Los Angeles, they faced some obstacles that the others had not.
LAFD Management discouraged members from going to NYC
At some point management had become aware of their intentions. An "all chiefs" meeting was called, and at that meeting battalion chiefs were instructed to visit each fire station and to discourage firefighters from traveling to New York to help in the effort. As those visits were taking place, a teletype notice went out to the field. The notice characterized travel from the Los Angeles area as something akin to the abandonment of one's post, and strongly advised against the "self-dispatch" to New York by LAFD firefighters. Finally, on September 19th a letter from the Fire Chief was sent to all work locations. The letter lectured firefighters concerning their responsibility to protect the City of Los Angeles, and warned, "faltering in this mandate will not be tolerated". Many firefighters took all of this as an implied threat of discipline for anyone ignoring these warnings.
No Stopping LAFD Members
But these givers were determined to help. Several of them called UFLAC Board members for advice. They were told that the department had no right to impose travel restrictions or otherwise control the legal activities of off-duty firefighters. That settled, they finalized their plans. Less than one week after the attack on the WTC, these LAFD ambassadors, dressed in fresh UFLAC tee shirts, headed for New York City on some of the first commercial flights allowed out of Los Angeles.
. . . perfect example of the brotherhood of firefighters
What happened next surprised even me. Our boys simply showed up at FDNY firehouses with words of condolence, and an offer to help in an way needed. They professed a willingness to cook, to clean, whatever. Their attitude was instantly seen by New York firefighters (whose reliance on union principals is legendary) as a perfect example of the brotherhood of firefighters. Before long many were "riding out" on fire trucks in order to free up FDNY firefighters to attend funerals and comfort loved ones. But the story doesn't end there. As these FDNY fire companies "rotated in" to rescue and recovery duty at ground zero, they brought along the "brothers from Los Angeles". As a result, the freelancers unexpectedly became the first LAFD members to see effective action at ground zero.
. . . the first to earn the trust of the firefighters in charge
But an explanation is needed here. You will remember that the first two groups of LAFD firefighters preceded the freelances by a few days. So how did the freelancers get in on the action first? Our USAR team and CISM team were part of the FEMA effort. Through no fault of their own, both teams had spent the first few days working well out on the perimeter of the site. An incident of this magnitude is an overwhelming organizational challenge. This was FDNY's incident. Their 14,000 firefighters and ample resources were enough to do the job alone if necessary. Remember that it was their fallen brothers in the rubble. As much as possible they intended to "bring out their own". So in those early days only the FDNY and the outside firefighters they brought in had real access to the site. Furthermore, the acceptance of outsiders by New York's bravest was somewhat dependent on their being readily identifiable as professional IAFF firefighters. Therefore, a firefighter tee shirt with the IAFF Maltese cross was the uniform of choice. Our freelancers wore the UFLAC tee-shirt, they had flown all the way across the country at their own expense, they came hoping only for a chance to help brothers in need., and had demonstrated their abilities while working shoulder to shoulder with the FDNY. Naturally they were the first to earn the trust of the firefighters in charge.
The department had become aware of the sensibilities of FDNY and had asked UFLAC for "tee shirts for everybody"
In little time the selfless work of the freelances opened doors for the rest of the LAFD contingent. The appreciation of FDNY firefighters was expressed as, "Hey, you guys from L.A. are alright." That was transferred to the rest of our group, and soon everyone had the access needed to do the work that they had come to do. It probably also helped that by now all of our people, chiefs included, were wearing either a LAFD or UFLAC tee shirt. The department had become aware of the sensibilities of the FDNY and had asked UFLAC for "tee shirts for everybody". We were happy to oblige. A shipment was sent overnight to New York City, and well over 100 shirts were distributed to LAFD members.
The collapse of the twin towers on September 11th was one of the worst tragedies in American history. Certainly it will go down as the worst day in the long history of the fire service. While mere words can never adequately express the immense sadness we firefighters feel for the loss of so many of our brothers, we can take solace in knowing that so many LAFD "givers" were there to help in that time and place of terrible need. Each of them deserves a full measure of our gratitude. We can be proud of the contributions of all of our co-workers, both those who were sent by the powers that be, and those who simply followed their hearts.
The Mail Bag
Copyright 2002 All Rights Reserved