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10 years later: How we can honor the 9/11 fallen

I’m afraid that while we say we will “never forget,” it’s already started to happen


AP Photo/Matt Moyer

I can’t imagine the pain that so many people are feeling this week, as our nation commemorates the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, Arlington, Virginia, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

While I participated in the response/recovery efforts for two of those incidents, and knew more than a dozen people who were lost (both firefighters and civilians) at the World Trade Center and The Pentagon, I also know there are many others who were affected so much more than I was — losing loved ones, brother firefighters, and fellow first responders.

I also think about the members of our military and the veterans who have sacrificed so much over the past decade while taking the fight away from our shores, to our collective enemies.

We owe all of these people, and their families, a debt of gratitude that none of us can ever hope to repay. 9/11 is on my mind, as I’m sure it is on yours, every year at this time. But it seems like this year is different for our country.

This year, it’s almost impossible to escape the sounds and images of 9/11. (Personally, I can’t watch or listen to any of it).

Politicians and pundits are taking advantage of the 10-year anniversary to opine on all sorts of issues: from overseas military and counter-terrorism strategy, to whether or not homeland security grant funds (including the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program) have made us “safer” in the United States.

And yes, there are some who talk about the people who made the ultimate sacrifice that day; including the FDNY firefighters without whom the civilian casualty toll, experts agree, would have been much higher.

I guess I can’t help but wonder where all the talking heads will be next year, on the 11th anniversary? Or where they were last year, when so many 9/11 responders were denied compensation for their continuing medical problems?

While I understand the need for our nation to “move past” 9/11 as part of the healing process, I suppose I’m afraid that while we say we will “never forget,” that it’s already started to happen.

Fire departments in many cities, towns, and counties are still being decimated by budget cuts, and firefighters are still being pilloried for their pay and benefits.

Yet we are still at war. Not just with terrorists (foreign and domestic) who seek to harm us for their twisted ends, but with the daily ravages of uncontrolled fires and other emergencies.

Perhaps the best way for us to honor the memory of those who perished on 9/11 is to constantly remind those around us — starting with our friends, neighbors, and family members — that local firefighters will always be on the front lines for any tragedy that befalls our communities, just as they were in September of 2001, and just as they will be on September 12th ... and beyond.


Adam K. Thiel is the fire commissioner and director of the Office of Emergency Management in the city of Philadelphia. Thiel previously served as a fire chief in the National Capital Region and as a state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Thiel’s operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters, including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.

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