Muskegon Fire Dept. Deputy Director Jay Paulson and another firefighter see the smoke rise after being called to a fire at a Dollar General in Muskegon. Photo By David Ruck
Muskegon Fire Dept. Deputy Director Jay Paulson and another firefighter see the smoke rise after being called to a fire at a Dollar General in Muskegon.

Tenured Michigan firefighters remember the events of 9/11 well. For some, the 20th anniversary hits close to home.

MUSKEGON, Mich.—Looking back 20 years, everything happened so quickly. The first thing Jay Paulson remembers on September 11, 2001, he was at the shooting range, completing a fall training for the Grand Haven Police and Fire Department. Next thing he knew, a door slammed from inside as someone yelled to those outdoors.

“We’re under attack!”

Later, at his Grand Haven home, he sorted his gear and clothes, and set them away. Jittery with apprehension and nervousness, he awaited a fateful phone call that never came.

“I had my bags packed,” Paulson said.

Paulson braced himself. He knew what he signed up for. As one of two members of the local emergency response team, he was first on-call to join the rescue efforts. With a single notice, he’d be headed to New York immediately.

At least part of him wishes his phone rang. 

“You get into this kind of business, that’s what you want to do is help,” Paulson said.

Sept. 11, 2011, is a day poignant to all Americans, a where-were-you-when moment frozen in time. This year is the 20th anniversary of the terrorist planejackings that killed thousands.

For firefighters, the day brings back deep reflections. It reminds them why they chose to undertake their service. But it’s also a reminder of the sacrifice they risk in their line of duty.

“Every time I see those towers falling, I see firefighters dying,” Paulson said. “I have a hard time watching those videos.”

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INSIDE THE BUILDINGS

Three-hundred-forty-three lives. That’s the official number of firefighters who died in the 9/11 rescue mission. 

Paulson knows it off the top of his head. 

But that number contains one omission: Keith Roma. 

“I don’t understand why they haven’t counted him,” Rick Brewbaker, Owosso Fire Department captain, said. 

The 27-year-old firefighter is often excluded from lists because he was a part of the New York Fire Patrol, not the New York Fire Department, people suspect. Determined not to let his sacrifice be lost, however, firefighters remember him well: He saved more than 200 lives, per one account, before he died in the rubble, attempting to escort nine more evacuees to safety.

Still, 344 is an undercount, Brewbaker says. People shouldn’t forget the permanent lung damage and cancer that first responders inhaled on the site, as well as the mental toll firefighters and their families shoulder.

After all, firefighting is a unique bond, Michigan fire chiefs say, with no one left behind. 

“It’s a very tight-knit bond that we share that a lot of other people or a lot of other jobs really don’t have,” Brewbaker, a 33-year fire service, said. “We’re all family. We might not be related but we consider ourselves all family.”

Journeying into the inferno is exiting the world we know outside, as Paulson described a typical scene. Flames hiss and scream, and smoke bellows. Black, burning fog composed of noxious gas cloaks everything. In the distance, explosions erupt, as extreme heat and elements intermingle. 

“Our rule was if your ears started burning, you would get out,” Paulson, a 36-year fire service veteran, said. “The flashovers, the smoke explosions – those are real. Those could injure or cook a fireman real quick.”

Few people know this terror intimately. Small town or big city, firefighters do. That’s why the 20th anniversary of 9/11 speaks to them so loudly.

One of Paulson’s close friends to this day was a first responder on site of the World Trade Center. He made it out alive, but the memories are harrowing even today.

“To listen to what happened in his version and the uncut version of a police officer and what he saw that day is truly remarkable,” Paulson said.

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THE FALLOUT

Sept. 11 changed everything: how we travel, how we fly, how we interact with others, if we’re lucky.

For first responders around the country, the events of that day changed how incident response happens.

“It changed how we do things and it still has today,” said Kevin Lenkart, Owosso Director of Public Safety.

Nowadays, emergency response teams are planned months in advance. Departments train in coordination with the National Guard for if such situations arise. 

In 2001, everything was in scramble mode. No one had ever seen this before.

Paulson said that the attacks and Hurricane Katrina provided new blueprints for disaster response. Michigan now has a Mutual Aid Box Alarm System that expedites help from other agencies and governments with the click of a button.

“Out of the bad like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, good things came out of that,” Paulson said.

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Photo credit Muskegon Professional Firefighters Union – IAFF Local 370
Photo credit Muskegon Professional Firefighters Union – IAFF Local 370

20 YEARS LATER: REMEMBERING THE SACRIFICE

In 2001, as more information became available around the attack, the nation stopped and observed in abject horror. Fire departments, feeling the pang of the attack, paid tribute.

On the day of the attack, Brewbaker, then a part of the volunteer fire service in Ovid, remembers laying down an empty fireman’s suit outside of the station and lowering the American flag to half-staff.

On yearly anniversaries after the attack, Paulson and the Grand Haven Fire Department laid a flag on the firetruck outside. At the time the plane collided with the first tower, firefighters stepped outside and saluted the flag. Passerby paused and gathered.

Even 20 years later, these tributes continue. 

“It’s never forgotten. And it will never be forgotten,” Brewbaker said.

Now as the deputy director for the Muskegon fire service, Paulson will have his department participate in an all-day salute from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. on board a famous retired military vessel, USS LST 393. 

Along with the local Boy Scout chapter, firefighters will salute the flag to preserve the memory of those who lost their lives and honor those who saved so many. Meanwhile, they’ll pass down the significance of the event to those too young to remember it.

“Things like this will make you not forget,” Paulson said.

During the Sept. 11 attacks, 2,996 people died. At least 42 had Michigan roots, according to Michigan Remembers. Memorials will be held throughout the state to remember the loss. Please contact your local officials for more information.