This post originally appeared on Facebook.
This is a photo of my Dad, taken in 2010. He’s retired now after serving over three decades with the Chicago Fire Department. Both of his brothers, and their father before them, served with the CFD. It was their job, every day, to save lives. Even if it put their own in danger.
I always think of them on this day. On this day, 17 years ago, 412 emergency response personnel died responding to the September 11 attacks. 343 of them were fighters (including one chaplain and two paramedics). While everyone else ran out of the buildings and away from the scenes, these men and women ran in. They helped an estimated 13,000-15,000 people evacuate, saving the lives of the evacuees at the cost of their own.
My father remembers that day. He remembers the heightened state of security in downtown Chicago, because at the time nobody knew if there were other planes in the air with other targets. He remembers every one of his fellow firefighters waiting for the call that would summon them all to make the same sacrifice the NYFD made–a call that, thankfully, never came.
I always think of my father, uncles, and grandfather on this day. But I don’t have the luxury of forgetting once this day is over. My cousins and I as kids always knew, instinctively, that our fathers one day might not come home. But we never asked them not to go. If they stayed home, people died. It’s literally that simple.
No one asks my father to walk out onto the field at sporting events.
No one puts his face on the Jumbotron and asks a crowd to pay their proper respect with wild cheering.
No one offers him a discount at stores.
No one stops him on the street or in restaurants to thank him for his service.
And still he served, for three decades, saving lives.
I am the son, the nephew, and the grandson of firefighters–people who did not hesitate to look Death in the face, who stole people right out of Death’s hands, who understood the full and terrible meaning of the word sacrifice, who had more courage than I have ever known. Not a single day goes by that I’m not struck by just how incredible they were–and still are, even though they’re all retired and are nowhere near perfect (sorry guys). I don’t know how many people’s lives they directly saved–I’ve never asked, and I wonder if they themselves know, if they even kept count.
The next time you see a firefighter out on the street, or in a store, or eating at a restaurant, or at a community event: thank them. Thank them for the legacy of the 343 firefighters who died on this day 17 years ago. Thank them for their selflessness. Thank them for saving lives. They don’t work for the thanks, but they’ll appreciate it. And so will we: their children, their nieces and nephews, their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren.
God of earth and air, water and fire, height and depth, we pray for those who work in danger, who rush in to bring hope and help and comfort when others flee to safety, whose mission is to seek and save, serve and protect, and whose presence embodies the protection of the Good Shepherd. Give them caution and concern for one another, so that in safety they may do what must be done, under your watchful eye. Support them in their courage and dedication that they may continue to save lives, ease pain, and mend the torn fabric of lives and social order; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–Prayer for Emergency Workers, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 85.
This is a photo of the door of the firehouse in the neighborhood I grew up in. The red and green lights flanking the door come from the maritime tradition and appear on most Chicago firehouses and apparatus.