As the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks nears, many are reflecting on their own experiences on the day the world changed. For communities close to New York City — such as Maplewood and South Orange — the tragedy hits a deeper nerve.
"This area of the country almost completely understands or identifies with 9/11 because almost everyone I know knew someone who either lived there or was in the city or worked in those buildings. So it’s hit home here. I have relatives out of state. They all remember 9/11 but it’s not the same as when you lived here," said Captain Joseph Callaghan, a 20-year veteran of the Maplewood Fire Department.
Three hundred forty-three firefighters lost their lives on 9/11 and hundreds more played a part in the rescue, recovery and aid to the victims after the towers fell. Patch sat down with two local firemen to discuss their memories of that day and how the events changed the way they do their jobs.
Fire Chief Joseph Richardella — a 30-year veteran of the department — remembers that day clearly.
Although Maplewood firemen were not sent to Ground Zero, they played a part in helping their brethren in New York, as well as the citizens of Maplewood. “We were the first responders to greet all the people who came off the train who worked in the city. We offered care and condolences and were here to help them after this attack. We also offered them our services. If they had loved ones who were lost, we would help them in any way we could with our municipality connections. We were there for whatever they needed. They were all devastated when they got back."
Captain Callaghan was at the train station when residents finally made their way home. “It was pretty touching to see people getting off that train whose young families were looking for them — the emotional reunion of those people.”
The department was also assigned to crowd control at the entrances to the South Mountain Reservation in Maplewood and South Orange. “We got dispatched up to Washington Rock at the main entrance. There were hundreds of people at that big overlook. You had a plain view of the city. It was a clear day. And we ended up not doing anything with those people because they were so well behaved. They just wanted to see. It was very emotional," remembers Callaghan.
Once they realized there was no immediate threat to the community, the team became part of an Essex County Task Force to help the departments in New York who had lost men in the towers or to back up crew who were helping sift through the wreckage at Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan.
Some members of the Maplewood Fire Department went to the Fresh Kills landfill in Staten Island where crews were transporting the rubble from Ground Zero, and others backfilled houses in Brooklyn and Staten Island.
“It was a real touching, emotional time ‘cause all the neighborhood people who identified with that fire house were coming out and bringing those guys food and hanging around," said Callaghan.
One of the Maplewood firemen — Eddie Nugent — lost a brother-in-law who had been working in the towers. Many more — including Richardella — had friends and former colleagues who perished.
“This is such a small department. We’re all friends here and we all knew Eddie. We felt such sympathy for him and his family…and then everyone else knew somebody that was there I knew instructors that taught. There were some who had FDNY friends (who died)."
As they talked more about that day, memories returned. “Tough time to think about. It’s hard to even talk about. We went and got our kids from school and brought them home because who knew what was next. We thought it was all over. It was just crazy,” said Richardella.
It was also hard on the firemen’s families. Richardella’s daughter, Gina, was eight at the time. “It affected a lot of children. My daughter would not go to school after 9/11 — she would say. ‘Mom, I’m sick’ — because her father was going to work as a firefighter and she was scared he wouldn’t come home. It was a tough situation."
In the months following the attacks, there was a heightened fear of terrorist incidents, especially in the tri-state area. Richardella said this led to new training, equipment and procedures. “We responded to a ton of suspicious packages after 9/11. We had a total revamping of our standard operating procedures concerning terrorist threats."
“We got some government sponsored supplies like protective suits ‘cause our bunker gear does not protect against chemical attack, so we got (hazmat) suits and riot masks for any type of hazardous smoke," said Callaghan.
9/11 also taught emergency workers many lessons in dealing with events of that magnitude. In addition to safety, one area that needed improvement was communications, which Richardella said the department has addressed. “What came out of it is operations have gotten better. Interoperability with surrounding communities and the county — the command system has been addressed at higher levels. I think we’re more protected than we ever were. That’s one of the positives that came out of it.”
Another positive result of the crisis was how it reminded communities of the bravery shown and sacrifices made by firefighters every day.
"I remember a real sense of community, a national sense of unity. People were much more aware of all the different things that fire, police and EMS do. For the most part, we get a really nice reception from people here in town," said Callaghan.
Chief Richardella agrees but says that awareness has waned. "The correspondence between citizens of Maplewood and the police and the fire and EMS were just incredible. People would walk up to you on the streets and say, 'Thank you for what you do.' We received a lot of that at the time and we don’t get too much of that anymore now. Ten years have gone by."
Some firefighters feel some community anger and resentment over their salaries and pensions, which can be frustrating. "I’ve noticed that before 9/11 we kinda flew under the radar. The economy was good. After 9/11 we got that real respect. Now after the economy tanking, all of a sudden, we’re demonized a bit. The climate in Jersey is crazy. That level of respect and identification with the fire house and for the fire service and law enforcement service is kind of disappearing,” said Callaghan.
While the public appreciation may have diminished over the last decade, the Maplewood firefighters never forget their fallen brothers and all the victims of 9/11. There are memorials all over their house to those lost. There’s a plaque with the names of the two Maplewood residents who died on 9/11 — Doug Cherry and Kirsten Christophe — which usually sits on the fire truck. There’s a commemorative FDNY 9/11 t-shirt hanging on a wall. The most recognizable remembrance is the reflective artwork on the side of one fire truck — by local artist Valerie Rhatigan — that’s a sketch of the iconic photo of firemen raising the flag at Ground Zero combined with images of the Statue of Libery and Iwo Jima.
Richardella says it’s one way to show respect for those lost. "It was a very difficult situation…and we have memorials all over our apparatus that say ‘never forget.'"
These firefighters are ready to go when called into service to fight fires, or any other challenges that come in. Richardella says they respond to some 3,200 calls a year, from trees down to bats in the chimney to heart attacks. “We are a very service-oriented fire department. We go on all kinds of calls. Big city service in a small town community. No matter what happens, we’re still going to be your first responders. Regardless of what happened, we have to go. We are involved with the task force that responds to Newark Airport and we’re involved in a task force that responds within the county so… anytime."
All firehouses are concerned about national security in the wake of 9/11.
“That scares all of us in this profession. That people start getting complacent and looking the other way and another bad event’s gonna happen. If it’s here, if it’s Milwaukee, wherever it is, firemen are going and they’re gonna be the first guys in there,“ said Callaghan.
Since 9/11, the nature of the business has changed. Departments are on call for more than fires now. The completely unexpected happened once, with devastating consequences. They don’t know what the next call will bring and that can take a toll, according to Callaghan. “You’re here to deal with stressful situations. Every time the bell goes off — I’ve been here 20 years — but every time that bell goes off, you get a little zap."
There were lessons learned from 9/11 but, as Callaghan says, the bottom line is still duty.
"Those guys (FDNY) are like an army. They’re like the Yankees of fire service. They just have so many resources. People look to them for training. So when you saw something like that happen, you knew we all had to reevaluate training and response but one of the things that will never change is — they’re gonna go. That could happen again today and guys are gonna go. They’re gonna try to make rescues. Our motto is 'life and property.' So when it’s life, you put your own life on the line to save a life.”
Why do they do it?
Pure passion and desire to help people. “There’s stress in this job but once you do this job, it’s a life job. I don’t even mind coming to work," Callaghan said with a smile.
Added Richardella, "You love it, it’s the best job in the world.”
To mark the tenth anniversary, all on-duty Maplewood firemen will participate in a service and flag raising ceremony at 2 p.m. at the Hilton Branch of the Maplewood Library.