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9/11 remembered: A son in harm’s way

The most profound loss on that fateful day in 2001 was the loss of family


Every Patriots’ Day brings back memories. You distinctly remember where you were when you first heard the news of an airplane hitting the World Trade Center.

You remember scrambling in disbelief to a television only to see a column of black smoke rising across the Manhattan skyline. Then, if you hadn’t already realized that the United States was under attack, you witnessed another plane strike the second twin tower — and you knew the world would never be the same for you again.

Each of the attacks on 9/11 had a personal significance to me. At the time, I was serving as the state fire marshal Reynoldsburg, Ohio just outside of Columbus. Our oldest son, a Navy officer, was serving at the Pentagon with his office less than 100 feet from the crater created by the impact and fires of American Airlines Flight 77.

He had trained and served on the Virginia Beach Fire — Rescue as both a reserve firefighter and an EMT while assigned in the Norfolk area. He used both skill sets that day.

After assisting in the building evacuation, he began to help with patient triage. When he heard reports of victims still inside, he and two others re-entered the building to search. With only a pressure washer, they attempted to fight their way through the flames to the command center where several of his colleagues were trapped.

Their attempts were halted only when the building began to collapse. He eventually would be one of those decorated for his actions, but well into that night, none of us had heard directly from him.

Those were some of the longest hours ever for our daughter-in-law, my wife and me.

Seeing it

As the series of attacks unfolded, the state emergency operations center was activated. One of the first reports we received was from Cleveland’s Hopkins International Airport where they believed United Flight 93 had crashed somewhere in their vicinity.

We later realized this was the area where the terrorist gained control of the aircraft, turned off its transponder and headed back toward Washington, only to be retaken by the heroic passengers prior to its crash near Shanksville, Pa.

Twice that year, I visited the site of the World Trade Center attack. The first came within three days of the attack when the Ohio EMA director asked if I wanted to travel there to shadow our New York counterparts.

Words or even photographs could not describe the devastation. I was amazed that the main streets to Ground Zero were relatively clear of debris but soon learned the reason.

One only had to look at the side streets and alleyways where everything had been piled. In addition to building debris, there were dozens of emergency vehicles — fire, rescue, EMS, and police — stacked atop one another like cordwood.

Perhaps what somehow struck me hardest, was the mountains of piled yellow 5-inch supply line once laid by those engines and those missing firefighters, now standing only as a silent tribute to their courageous actions.

Smoke from still burning debris hung in the air. The smell of electrical wires burning was prevalent, and the facade of the twin towers leaned precariously over the streets and walkways. Everywhere, literally everywhere, was the gray dust that clung to everything including what felt like the inside of our own lungs.

Tim Higgins

Among all of this, an army of firefighters, USAR teams including Ohio’s Task Force 1, other emergency workers, construction crane operators and steel workers relentlessly worked to find one last victim alive or one more body to return to their family. The sights, sounds and smell still come back to me every time I visit the financial district.

In November of that year, I returned to New York City as part of a FEMA team assembled to conduct a needs assessment for future assistance to FDNY. While my specific duties included training and administration, our schedule allowed some time to revisit the WTC site.

I could not imagine the progress that I saw from a vantage point atop the American Express Building. But a brief conversation on that observation deck re-enforced the bond of brotherhood that exists among all firefighters.

For several days, then fire Lt. Robert Higgins drove me wherever I needed to go. From that deck on the American Express Building, I asked him to help orient me to the activity on the ground.

“Is that the Oppenheimer Building over there? If so, then Tower 1 was here and Tower 2 there?” I pointed as I asked. Bob replied, “Yes, and somewhere over there is where my brother, Tim, is still buried,” as he pointed to another debris area.

His words slammed me back to reality. This was not only the loss of the 343 FDNY firefighters, nor the nearly 2,700 civilians, nor the 189 in D.C., nor the 44 in Pennsylvania.

This was the loss of family that I had, by the grace of God, averted at the Pentagon. For me this loss would be forever embodied in the words “never forget.”

This article, originally published Sept. 10, 2015, has been updated

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.