Former and current fire chief recounts rescue efforts | News, Sports, Jobs
The images of so many memorials and posters of missing people near Ground Zero in the wake of the terrorist attacks in New York City remain etched in Sam Salemme’s memory.
“It’s hard to describe” said Salemme. “In Lower Manhattan, there were all these places where families would post pictures and makeshift memorials. “
Two weeks earlier, on the morning of September 11, 2001, Salemme – then a lieutenant in the Jamestown Fire Department – watched non-stop television coverage of the attacks in which terrorists flew two planes over the World Trade Center, one on the Pentagon in Washington. and another in a field in rural Pennsylvania, killing 2,977 people.
“It was my day off, and like everyone else, my eyes were on the TV” said Salemme.
For Matt Coon, the sight of abandoned and crushed fire trucks after the collapse of the Twin Towers still strikes him today.
“We were driving on wasteland where there was fire-fighting equipment which was flattened by the collapse of the buildings” he said. “It was one of the most striking things.”
Coon, currently the city’s deputy fire chief but in 2001 a 28-year-old firefighter, said he was in the middle of a vehicle inspection when he learned that a plane had struck the World Trade Center.
“When I finished having the car inspected I went straight home and like the rest of America I was glued to the TV trying to see events as they unfolded. real “ Coon said.
Salemme and Coon were among dozens in Chautauqua County who volunteered to help in the days, weeks, and months after the World Trade Center collapsed. Both were interviewed this week ahead of the 20th anniversary of 9/11 to share their experiences in New York City as the nation mourned.
A CALL FOR HELP
“Honestly, as a firefighter you want to get down and help” said Salemme.
As a firefighter himself, Coon understood the massive business going on at Ground Zero.
“From a firefighter’s perspective, your mind immediately goes to the firefighters who were there and the overwhelming feeling of the task they had ahead of them.” he said.
Shortly after the attacks, and as first responders were wanted statewide, the Jamestown Fire Chief appealed to anyone interested to come to New York City to help with the relief efforts. A group including Salemme and Coon drove two ambulances to Manhattan on September 24 and stayed for 24 hours.
Even two weeks after the attacks, security was extremely tight as armed National Guards dotted the otherwise barren streets towards Ground Zero. After their arrival, the local group proceeded to the Chelsea Docks, which had been established as a staging area for volunteer rescuers and medical staff.
They were then deployed to Battery Park, and each of the two crews using the local ambulances were assigned to different positions.
“At this point it was a recovery effort, and we were tasked with the rescue efforts if a firefighter was injured or something like that.” said Salemme.
The Coon crew, inside the “hot zone,” were located next to the World Financial Center to the west of the World Trade Center complex. “My specific team, we did not treat any of the firefighters”, he said. “We treated some of the other workers who were there. We treated an ironworker who was there to help with the rescue effort.
During their downtime, the group remained aboard the USNS Comfort, a massive hospital ship that sailed to New York after the attacks and served first responders near Ground Zero.
It was at the docks that Coon and other volunteers received a stuffed animal from the families of those rescued or killed in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in the Oklahoma. Written on the tag of the animal Coon received was “God protect you. We love you.” He also received a hat with the USNS Comfort on it.
Coon, who was touched by the gesture at the time, retained both elements.
A ‘SURREAL FEELING’
For Coon and Salemme, memories of the relief effort remain just as vivid 20 years later.
“The smell of burning fires is embedded in my head” Salemme said, “and for a few blocks photos of missing persons and memorials on the sidewalks for those who wanted to know the whereabouts of their loved ones.”
He added, “It was a surreal feeling in lower Manhattan driving the wrong way on a one-way street. And just looking at the firefighters, the FDNY, and how tired they were. Not just the fire department, the police and the port authority, but all the workers and how hard they worked. “
Coon recalled the appreciation they received.
“It was a very surreal experience.” he said. “When we got back I remember Sam was driving the ambulance and I was sitting on the passenger side and the other crew were in the back. And when we drove down the West Side Highway there was all these people. It was the middle of the night, and all these people were lined up in the streets to applaud. They all had signs. It was amazing to me – it was in the middle of the night and there was hundreds of people on both sides of the road.
Since this volunteer effort, Salemme and Coon have returned to New York. Both also visited the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, located on the site of the World Trade Center and which commemorates the 2001 terrorist attacks and the 1993 bombing at the same location.
Salemme, who became deputy fire chief before his retirement last year, called the 9/11 memorial experience sobering. “There were no words to describe what it was” he said.