Local firefighters reflect on post-9/11 trip to NYC
CARBONDALE, Colorado – Rob Goodwin and Will Handville weren’t sure exactly how they could help when they traveled to New York City for six days in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center building.
They just knew they had to be there to assist their “brothers” in some way, especially as it became known that so many fellow firefighters had been killed during the early rescue efforts when the towers collapsed.
The two longtime members of the Carbondale and Rural Fire Protection District crew were chosen from among their ranks to go to New York.
Initially, the purpose was to help with the ongoing rescue and recovery efforts at what became known as “Ground Zero.” They would soon learn that their mission was much broader.
“Sept. 11, for us, like everybody else, was just unbelievable,” Goodwin said in a recent interview. The 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is commemorated today.
“To be there and see the enormity of that tragedy, and to see how our own community pulled together in its own way, it was just an amazing experience,” he said.
Goodwin, 51, is back as deputy Carbondale fire chief after a 5 1/2-year hiatus from 2004 until his return to the department staff last year.
Like others around the world, he was watching on TV the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, as everything was unfolding in New York where two hijacked jets slammed into the twin towers.
Another jet had crashed into the side of the Pentagon building in Arlington, Va. Yet another hijacked plane had been brought down in a remote field in Pennsylvania short of its planned target in Washington, D.C. – thanks to the fast thinking of some brave passengers who perished, it would later be revealed.
Chaos ruled the day.
But, just as others were doing their best to go about the day’s business, Goodwin, Handville and their fellow Carbondale firefighters showed up for work.
The Carbondale Fire Department and its counterparts around the country received the call for assistance from the New York-New Jersey Port Authority, owners of the WTC building.
“We figured, if now’s not the time to go help, when is?” Goodwin recalled.
The Carbondale crew met with Fire Chief Ron Leach, and Goodwin and Handville were selected to make the trip to New York City.
They began packing up one of the fire engines with equipment, and initially had planned to drive the truck the roughly 2,000 miles to New York.
By the next day, though, the city was already inundated with firefighters and other emergency workers from across the country.
“We were just going to show up and try to help out, but the need for more people and equipment became less critical, so we had to reevaluate our purpose,” Goodwin said.
It was in those ensuing days that the Families of the Fallen Firefighters Fund was set up through the FDNY to assist the families of the New York firefighters who were killed in the line of duty – a number that eventually grew to 343.
“We talked about it at the firehouse and decided to take a fire boot over to City Market to collect money for the relief fund,” Goodwin said.
“One thing I’ll never forget is going over to the grocery store and seeing people walk up to the table, tears streaming down their cheeks, putting checks and hundred dollar bills in that boot,” he recalled. “It just blew me away, and it’s one of the things that really sticks with me to this day.”
Over two days, the Carbondale community raised $30,000 for the relief fund, and the mission for Goodwin and Handville became clearer.
“We decided we should still go to New York and personally deliver the money,” Goodwin said.
Once flights were allowed (air travel was suspended for four days after the attacks), they booked a flight to Allentown, Pa., for Sept. 17 and rented a Chevy Suburban to drive into downtown New York from there.
“It was weird getting on the plane. That was a scary time,” Goodwin said.
“I can still remember every single minute we were there,” Handville, now 56 and a 23-year Carbondale Fire veteran, said in a phone interview last week from Denver, where he is enrolled in an intensive, six-month paramedic training program.
“I drove into the city, and the second we stepped out of the Suburban, we immediately had two people who saw our fire department shirts come up and grab our hands,” he said. “It was like that all over the city.
“We’d go out to dinner, and the waiters and waitresses would be fighting over who was going to pick up the tab,” he said. “They knew we were there to help.
“We still didn’t know exactly what it was we were going to do,” Handville said. “We just knew we wanted to be there to do what we could for our brothers.”
They decided their mission was three-fold:
• To make sure the check got into the right hands.
• To at least offer to help out at the WTC site.
• To check in at some of the fire stations around the city and just offer assistance in any way possible.
“New York is a very impressive place, but I just remember that everyone we saw seemed really subdued,” Goodwin said.
Although official procedures and safety precautions prevented Goodwin and Handville from physically helping out at Ground Zero, they did spend two days in lower Manhattan where the towers once stood.
“Virtually every building in that area was plastered with photo copies of pictures of people who were still missing, and messages from family members asking for information on their whereabouts,” Goodwin said.
At that point, around 8,000 people were still unaccounted for. The actual number of people killed in the twin towers was later adjusted to around 3,000.
“The smell was incredible, because the rubble was still on fire,” Goodwin said. “And as we were walking down the street, virtually everyone was weeping. It was just so overwhelming, I found myself weeping.”
At one point, he said a certain Biblical passage, “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth …” from the Book of Luke, came to mind.
“It just struck me, the enormity of it all … this was something the country had never really seen before, and we were walking right into the middle of it,” Goodwin said.
On their other days, they spent time checking in at different fire stations around the city. Most had lost members of their own crew, and photos of the firefighters who were known dead or still missing were posted on the walls.
Handville vividly remembers the sidewalks in front of the fire stations were caked in candle wax, sometimes six or eight inches thick, from the candles that had been lit in vigil to those lost and missing.
“We met people, our brothers and sisters, in the worst situation you can imagine,” Handville said. “We didn’t want to push so much that we would become an irritant, and I think we were received with such open arms because we weren’t overbearing.”
That’s when they realized they were there as much for moral support as anything.
“When we really got a chance to have a good, long talk with some of these people, they opened up to us,” Goodwin said.
One firefighter told the story of how he had been at Ground Zero tending to people on the sidewalk before the first tower collapsed.
“He said they kept hearing this terrible crashing noise around them, but didn’t know what it was as first,” Goodwin said. “It finally dawned on them that it was people jumping from the building trying to escape the fire.”
This particular firefighter went back into the building time and again to help bring people out, before the tower finally collapsed.
“This guy had survived it all, and we were just sitting there talking with him, helping him cope,” Goodwin said. “They appreciated that other firefighters from all these different places were there helping, doing what they could to help out.”
On their last day in New York, Goodwin and Handville’s final task was to deliver the check from the Carbondale boot collection to be put into the firefighters’ family fund.
Early on, they were advised not to leave the money with any of the individual fire stations, since they all have their own unions. They wanted the money to be distributed evenly, so they drove to the Fire Department of New York headquarters in Brooklyn.
“You walk into this big lobby, and one of the first things you see is a memorial plaque with all the names of firefighters who had been lost in the line of duty,” Goodwin said. “There were maybe 700 names, dating back into the 1800s.
“And it occurred to us that they would be adding 343 names just for that one day,” he said.
Eventually, they were escorted to then-FDNY Commissioner Thomas Von Essen’s office on one of the upper floors of the building.
“We were truly expecting to have one of his aides come out and accept the check from us,” Handville said. “But we were escorted into the commissioner’s office and told to wait, and that the commissioner himself wanted to meet with us personally.
“He was very polite and appreciative, and touched that a little town in Colorado could raise that much money,” he said.
Handville and Goodwin told the commissioner how they’d been around the city talking to firefighters, and seeing how they were doing.
“Then he asked, ‘and how are my guys doing?’,” Goodwin said. “We told him they were devastated, and overwhelmed by it all, but that they were back doing the job. It was really emotional talking to him.”
To this day, Goodwin wears a “9-11 343” patch on the sleeve of his uniform shirt – a tribute to the 343 New York firefighters who were killed on Sept. 11, 2001.
“It will stay on any uniform shirt I ever have, because I will never forget,” he said.
“I was really kind of rattled for six months after that experience, to have been there and seen the enormity of a tragedy like that,” Goodwin said. “But also to see the incredible strength, and the goodness of the people there, and how this community contributed in its own way – that was very powerful for me.”
Handville recalled back to a few years before 9/11, in 1994 when Glenwood Springs was grieving after 14 federal wildland firefighters were killed in the Storm King Mountain Fire.
“After being through that, I knew I wanted to be in New York to help during their grieving,” he said. “And I think it was part of the healing process back home to know that two of their own guys were over there contributing in some way.”
Handville, an avid motorcycle rider and bike builder, is featured in this month’s edition of “Thunder Roads Colorado” magazine for a motorcycle he eventually built in tribute to the 343 firefighters that lost their lives on 9/11.
“This bike came to me in a dream,” he says in the magazine article, which can be found online at http://www.thundercolorado.com.
“I dreamt this bike, and this is exactly what it looked like. When I got back, this was something I just had to do. It helped me release compassion and sorrow for my brothers.”
He calls the bike “Flashover.” It features the FDNY logo on one side, with “343” engraved in it. There’s also a small mural of the twin towers on fire just before the collapse.
“It’s not a bike that I will take on the road and put miles on,” Handville told the magazine. “This bike is here for one reason. I put my heart out there …”
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