17 years later, memories remain clear
RANSON — Independent Fire Company in Ranson once again hosted an annual ceremony to remember those who lost their lives on the sunny Tuesday morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The annual ceremony began the year after the attacks destroyed the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City; destroyed a portion of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. and resulted in the death of hundreds aboard a plane that crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Henry Christie, the event’s organizer, explained that three sets of five bells are rung at the start and end of the ceremony, signifying the loss of life of a firefighter. Dave Swan had the honor of sounding the bells Tuesday during the solemn ceremony.
Christie commended the young people in attendance Tuesday, as students from Washington High School’s Chamber Choir sang during the ceremony and members of the Jefferson Cougar Air Force Jr. ROTC posted the colors.
“Many of these young people were not even born the day these attacks happened, or if they were, they were very young,” Christie said.
Christie said the significance of hats upon a table at the event represented individuals from various groups who were killed in the terrorist attacks. In addition to firefighters, of which there were 343 lost in the attacks, United and American airlines caps represented civilians lost. More than 2,500 deaths were reported between New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, where a third plane involved in the attacks and headed for another target in Washington, D.C. was forced to the ground by passengers who stormed the cockpit. Police officers were represented by a Port Authority hat. Casualties were 37, as well as one canine for the Port Authority, 23 for the NYPD and one for the secret service. Military personnel were also represented, as 55 members of the military were killed in the Pentagon, as well as many more in the ensuing war on terror.
Sharing his memories of the day, Staff Sgt. Gregory Fechner of the United States Air Force talked about what it was like for those working in the Pentagon on that fateful day.
“It was a typical day going about my morning routine. There was some chatter about an accident involving a plane hitting the World Trade Center,” Fechner said. “My boss and I watched the news coverage, and at 9:03 when the second plane hit, we knew it was no accident, but that we were under attack.”
Thinking aloud that “we could be next,” Fechner said he then felt the building shake and thought a bomb had been detonated.
“We worked to evacuate our area. I heard a Navy Chief Petty Officer yelling for fire extinguishers. I knew we had two so I grabbed them and ran,” Fechner said.
Upon entering an area known as the Center Courtyard, Fechner realized it was not a bomb, but another aircraft that had been used to attack the Pentagon.
“I noticed luggage, stray shoes and other debris,” Fechner said. “I knew those people the items belonged to weren’t going home.”
Fechner recalled walking through the inner corridors of the Pentagon that were filled with “brackish liquid” he explained could have been jet fuel mixed with water. Fechner was one of 150-200 people working at the site to help people escape the building. Many suffered wounds from falling debris, smoke inhalation and burns.
While helping locate individuals to the Center Courtyard, Fechner noticed the Courtyard Cafe was closed and locked.
“I realized we needed to get in and get water for a relief station. We needed to get bottled water to the firefighters and other in need,” Fechner said, mentioning he made sure the cafe was opened and so water could be distributed to those in need.
Jefferson County’s own Ed Hannon, former assistant director of the county’s Emergency Services Agency, was a firefighter on duty at the Pentagon that sunny Tuesday morning.
Hannon, in tears at Tuesday’s ceremony, said about Fechner, “He gave me water in that courtyard.” The two men embraced as the ceremony ended, and shared a few heartfelt words.
Fechner received the Airman’s Medal for his service on Sept. 11, 2001. He summed up his memories saying, “It was a long, long day — one that none of us will ever forget.”