Remembering 9/11

Published 10:16 pm Thursday, September 10, 2009

As Suffolk residents prepare to commemorate the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a handful of Suffolk firefighters are remembering the event more vividly than most — or, in some cases, trying not to remember.

Five Suffolk firefighters answered the call to serve in New York City after the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania.

“It was completely heartbreaking,” Capt. James Deitz said. “I ran through the gamut of emotions, from anger to helplessness.”

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Suffolk firefighters went to the scene in shifts of about nine days, working out of an office located near Ground Zero. Although New York firefighters and steelworkers were the only ones allowed on “the pile,” as it was called, other firefighters at the scene worked in supporting roles.

The Suffolk firefighters were tasked with transporting clergy in and out of the disaster zone, attending funeral services, delivering memorial helmets with badge numbers to the fire stations of the 343 fallen firefighters and picking up new teams of firefighters from the airport. They also went on a ferry ride provided for families of victims so they could see the wreckage and “have some closure,” said Lt. Mason Copeland.

Copeland said clergy and firefighters worked in shifts at the scene in order to be available around the clock. The clergy had to be transported through numerous security checks to arrive at the scene, Copeland said.

“I was in a building collapse before, but that wasn’t anything compared to this,” Copeland said. He described the overwhelming devastation as “all around,” rather than just in front like a typical fire scene.

“I saw some stuff on the news before I went up, but it’s a lot worse seeing it up close and personal,” Copeland, a 30-year firefighter, said. “It was tough seeing the pile and knowing there were bodies in there.”

Deitz said he dislikes thinking about the attacks.

“I want to keep the ghosts where they belong,” he said. “It took me years before I would open up the Brotherhood book.”

Deitz referred to a pictorial book featuring New York firefighters, which memorialized their 343 fallen brothers.

“We did so little compared to what they went through,” Deitz said.

The two men both identified the experience as a defining moment of their careers, although it is also one they wish had never happened.

“Defining moment, yeah. Good moment, absolutely not,” Deitz said.

Copeland said he hopes people never forget the atrocities committed eight years ago.

“It made an impression on all of us,” he said.