‘It wasn’t just a firefighter thing, it was an American thing’ — LaGrange firefighter recall help after 9/11
LaGRANGE — It was the day time stood still, a nation fell to its knees and life as we knew it was forever changed in a matter of seconds that fateful morning — Sept. 11, 2001.
The attacks on America hit very close to home for first responders. Many watched on live TV as their comrades perished trying to save others when the Twin Towers collapsed at what became known as Ground Zero.
‘We were glued to the TV’
LaGrange Fire Lt. Chris Taylor was on shift that day and, ironically, part of a training simulation at LaGrange-Callaway Airport when news of the attacks trickled in. The firefighters canceled the rest of the session and rushed back to the fire station.
“Basically we were glued to the TV,” said Taylor. “I don’t remember if we had any calls that morning, or even on that shift. We were all huddled around the TV watching what everyone else was watching. There was a sense of sadness, anger, disbelief and numbness. We were watching it live. It was very catastrophic … very emotional.”
Those emotions overwhelmed many of the LaGrange firefighters and spurred them into motion. Almost all of them wanted to help in some way, such as take up monetary donations, but a handful were ready to get on the next plane and head to Ground Zero to assist with the clean up and support their fellow firefighters now dealing with the loss of comrades.
Fire Marshal John Thomas said a lack of funding and transportation delayed the team, which gave them a new mission to focus on for their trip.
Thomas said the LFD firefighters were hoping to help complete some of the cleanup work around the fallen Twin Towers. But after seeing the flood of response from other first responders, the team took a different approach and instead gathered donations for those affected by the tragedy.
Going to Ground Zero
Three weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City, LaGrange Fire Lt. Jim Ormsby and Fire Marshal John Thomas, along with Lt. Billy Hardy, Lt. Mark Bland, Deputy Chief Phillip Rice, Sgt. James Jackson and Lt. John Ramero all found themselves on an Angel Flight bound for New York City and Ground Zero.
The group was armed with hundreds of cards and posters from school children around Troup County, all filled with messages of comfort and support for the firefighters and families of the victims. The LaGrange firefighters also presented a check of donated money collected from folks around the community.
Ormsby said their mission was to travel to Ground Zero and help any way they could. The men were told right away the tight security clearance needed to be allowed in that area would make that trip impossible. But Ormsby and Rice had other ideas.
“We didn’t have any contacts, nothing,” Ormsby remembered. “When we got there, we headed towards downtown Manhattan and me and Chief Rice headed towards Ground Zero … We got to the (New York) State Patrol security post. I used to be a public safety officer, so one of the officers put us in the back of his car and drove us to the Liberty Post (the security check point closest to the fallen twin towers of the World Trade Center). Each time we got stopped, they said we might not get through to the next security check point, but we were able to get through every time.”
The men handed out the cards and posters brightly decorated with crayola crayons and full of messages of hope and smiling faces from children who live hundreds of miles away.
“We stayed there as long as we could and they never asked us to leave,” said Ormsby. “How do you describe something that broke these strong men into tears? These crayon cards really gave them hope during a difficult time.”
Brothers unite amid tragedy
“I was a devoted firefighter at that time, that was all I cared about,” Thomas said, pausing. “I’m not an emotional person, but that affected me … seeing the New York firefighters who lost their brothers (other firefighters) and their families who lost their loved ones that day. That’s when I started feeling human, on that day. I don’t know a firefighter that wouldn’t have done anything differently than what they did.”
Thomas said he had never spoken before about his experiences in New York City immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. It is a memory that is so vivid and fresh in his mind, he choked up with tears speaking about it Wednesday with the Daily News.
“There were six of us that went up there; not all of us were best friends when we went up there,” Thomas said. “But going up there, it just made you appreciate them more. Seeing all the devastation, being with them, it just brought me closer to the fire department.”
The group left a week later, but Ormsby said the images he saw and emotions he felt while at Ground Zero compelled him to travel back for the memorial ceremonies commemorating the Sept. 11 attacks for the next three years.
The first year he took a prayer book attached to a large, Maltese cross. Ormsby said besides President George W. Bush’s arrangement, it was the only other large memorial display allowed at the service.
For the 2003 memorial ceremony, the lieutenant brought a statue of the mythical phoenix rising from the ashes.
At the last service he attended in 2004, Ormsby said he presented New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudy Guiliani with a plaque from then-LaGrange Mayor Jeff Lukken.
“Every aspect of what we did in New York, we did through the city of LaGrange,” said Ormsby. “It wasn’t just a firefighter thing, it was an American thing.”
In 2002, Lt. Chris Taylor, who is also the coordinator for the LaGrange Fire Department honor guard, now-retired Sgt. Willie Williams and Deputy Chief Phillip Rice all traveled to Washington D.C. in September 2002 to pay tribute to their fallen comrades at a special ceremony in the nation’s capitol one year after the attacks.
“We thought it was essential to go and pay our respects to our brothers and sisters (firefighters) who lost their lives on 9/11. It was emotional. It was a long procession,” Taylor remembered. “The families came in on charter buses. Firefighters across the nation stood in formation as the families came through. I’ll never forget being there. I’m very thankful for being there … speaking to the other firefighters … it was a very humbling moment.”
Moments and memories none of the men have forgotten about, but few like to speak about. All three men said this was the first time they have really spoken about their journey
Ormsby said he has several mementos from the Ground Zero, including a metal piece of one of the World Trade Center buildings. He put them on display inside the Legacy Museum on Main Street for a while, but has since stored them away.
None of the three men have returned to the memorial sites at Ground Zero in New York City nor in D.C. since the last time they were there. Although they all said they would like to go back and see the new infrastructures one day.
Instead, they focus on taking one day at a time enjoying the present, knowing from the vivid images still stuck in the back of their minds that none of us are ever promised tomorrow.