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'It's our job to go in'

Nine years ago today, 343 firefighters, 60 police officers and eight paramedics perished as they attempted to rescue survivors when New York's World Trade Center collapsed.

Nine years ago today, 343 firefighters, 60 police officers and eight paramedics perished as they attempted to rescue survivors when New York's World Trade Center collapsed.

It was 8:46 a.m. EDT when the first hijacked passenger jet slammed into the north tower, setting it ablaze. Seventeen minutes later, the second hijacked jet slammed into the second tower. In another 56 minutes, the second tower collapsed, and the first tower followed within 29 minutes.

A third jet struck the Pentagon at 10:28 a.m. Hostages in a fourth hijacked jet managed to overcome the terrorists and caused their plane to crash short of its destination at 10:03 a.m.

Altogether, 2,977 died, not including the 19 hijackers.

It was a moment of disaster that left an indelible mark on the memories of Americans, and in particular emergency responders. On the anniversary of the attacks, the Herald asked local emergency responders what they remember of the attacks and what they felt at the time.


Pete O'Neill

Watching the twin towers burn on television at Grand Forks' central fire station, Chief O'Neill said he thought of the movie "The Towering Inferno" and how it highlighted the difficulty of battling high-rise blazes. "You start working your mind. How are they going to get that high? How are they going to get the fire out? How are they going to get people down?"

His mind was consumed with such details, he said, until the first tower collapsed and a colleague said, "Imagine all the firefighters that just died." That's when it hit him and he couldn't help tearing up. The department hasn't lost a firefighter, he said, and he wonders, if it ever happened, could he get up to speak?

A Grand Forks native, O'Neill has been a firefighter since 1973.

"I'm not on the trucks anymore, but I have a real respect for emergency responders," he said. "They really don't know what they're getting into at any moment. Sometimes, when they do know what they're getting into, they still go."

John Packett

"I always wondered what it felt like Dec. 7, 1941, and I lived long enough to have that feeling," Packett said, recalling the moment the second aircraft struck the World Trade Center.

After reading about the first crash on his office computer, he'd gone to the 911 dispatch center to watch the news.


He recalled thinking thousands must've died, but it didn't hit home until he later saw videos of first responders walking calmly toward the burning towers. "Seeing people walk toward their demise gives you a very uncomfortable feeling as a human being."

An Omaha, Neb., native, Packett has been in policing since 1971.

As a police administrator, he said, Sept. 11 reminded him that, though he's often deskbound, his isn't just a desk job. "As you progress through the ranks," he said, "you tend to lose that tactical and operational perspective of things. You tend to see things through an administrative point of view."

Ray Skari

Skari was in class at the firefighting academy when news of the attacks leaked in from TVs in the commons area. Class came to a halt as students kept eyes glued to the classroom set.

Watching the towers collapse, he said, it didn't hit him until later that many people were still inside. He was sad not just for the dead, but the families left behind, he said, and he wondered about his future. "It makes a person question when you're going into that field -- in one day, you lose 343 firefighters -- if that's really the route you want to go. And here I am, and I don't regret a day of it."

A Grand Forks native, Skari is now a senior firefighter with the city's Fire Department and has been since 2003.

Sept. 11, he said, seems to have made area residents more appreciative of firefighters. It's not unusual for him to hear people in the next car say thank you when he's stopped at red light in a fire engine, he said.


Rick Coulter

Coulter, a battalion chief with the Grand Forks Fire Department, had just gotten home from work the morning of the attacks. "When the first one collapsed, I knew -- firefighters were rushing in when other people are rushing out if they could -- I knew there were hundreds of firefighters rushing in," he said. "So, when the building came down, I just thought of those guys in the stairwell. I didn't think there was a lot of hope."

He, like many firefighters, knew the exact number of their brethren who perished in New York. The reading of the names of the dead at memorial services had seared 343 into his mind, he said; never had so many been lost in such a short time.

A Grand Forks native, Coulter's been firefighting since 1972 and plans to retire soon.

The job has always been dangerous, he said, but this time of year always reminds firefighters of that fact.

K.J. Kjelstrom

Capt. Kjelstrom's emotions ran the gamut when he heard about the attacks on the radio in his office.

"At first, it was kind of a feeling of 'My God, those poor people. What must be happening?'" he said. "That turned to a little bit, almost a fear, 'What is going on? How widespread is this? Is the whole nation under attack?' Then you get angry. That passed. Then you just have to get down to work."


He scheduled a staff meeting to talk about what Grand Forks Police's response should be, if other police agencies needed support.

Kjelstrom, a native of Rugby, N.D., has been an officer since 1968. He's now commander of the operations division.

Finding out how many first responders had died made him terribly sad, he said, but "at the same time I knew, whether it's here or East Coast, West Coast, firefighters, ambulance and police, we always go toward the fire or the shooting. It's our job to go in."

Mike Kirby

The Air Force was the first thing Capt. Kirby of the Grand Forks Police Department thought of when he realized the plane crashes were no accident. He was in a meeting when a detective came in to break the news. At the time, the local base had a fuel depot on the north end and he thought the military would worry about its security.

An Amelia, Va., native, Kirby started his law enforcement career in 1974 in Air Force security, and remains in the reserves. He now heads the administrative division with the city police department.

An attack means the military will be involved, he recalled thinking, and that meant he could be activated. He wasn't. He said another thought was that his oldest son, George, often worked at the Pentagon, another terrorist target on Sept. 11. He checked, and George was elsewhere that day.

The biggest impact of Sept. 11 on local police, he said, has been the federal funding for terrorism response. While day-to-day policing hasn't changed much, he said, terrorism is in the back of every officer's mind.


Jeff Anderson

Anderson was at home watching a morning show on TV when reports of the first plane crash came in. The second crash proved it was a deliberate attack. "You try to evaluate and try to rationalize: Why would this happen and why would somebody want to do this?" he asked himself. And then he thought that as soon as America figured out who did it, the nation would take action.

He said the first responders that died in the attacks were just doing their job. "It takes a special breed. We're running in when they're running out."

That's not too unusual to him, a second-generation firefighter. "I grew up with it all my life. My dad was a firefighter for 37½ years. They were doing their job, that's what they chose to do. I don't think anybody in any department would've hesitated."

He's been firefighting since 1992 and is now an engineer with the East Grand Forks Fire Department.

Darren Schimke

Schimke was on his way to a doctor's appointment when he heard of the first crash. By the time he left the doctor's office and dropped by a friend's house to see the news, it had become clear that it was an attack. "I sat there in disbelief for two hours watching this thing unfold on CNN."

The potential loss of lives staggered him, he said, especially emergency responders who "put their lives and families aside to save complete strangers." The head of the Grand Forks Fire Department's union, he said, he felt the loss of 343 union brothers.


The Harvey, N.D., native has been firefighting since 1985 and is now a driver in the department.

Sept. 11, he said, didn't change how he felt about his job. "I've always been proud from the first day to today doing what I do," he said. "I think it's the greatest job in the world."

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

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