Born in a post-9/11 America, some teens choose to protect and serve

From left, Logan Branch, 16, a volunteer with the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department; Alexis Johnson, 16, a volunteer with the Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad; Keegan Tyler, 16, a volunteer with the rescue squad; and Taylor Samburgh, 17, a volunteer with the rescue squad and the Paul Smiths-Gabriels Volunteer Fire Department, pose at Saranac Lake High School on Wednesday, the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They had not known they would be called in for an interview and photo; they were already wearing these uniforms at school. (Enterprise photo — Kevin Shea)

SARANAC LAKE — In the seconds and minutes of silence dedicated to remembering those lost in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, four students at Saranac Lake High School can think of those whose ideology they’re in sync with: those who serve.

Logan Branch, 16, Keegan Tyler, 16, Alexis Johnson, 16, and Taylor Samburgh, 17, wore their uniforms for the local fire department or emergency squad. They joined for several reasons — to serve their community, to find purpose in their work and to step into the line of danger for others’ sake — but one moment they weren’t even born to see has convinced them it was the right choice.

Tyler was called into his father’s room when he turned 8. His father told him about the day, how Tyler’s grandfather had called his father on the day to tell him about the tragedy. His father told him about what he saw on the television, about how terrible it was. He said it sunk in immediately.

“My Dad brought me into his room, and usually when I’m in there, it’s personal,” Tyler said. “It was quiet, and he was just explaining to me all the stuff that happened and how he was kind of scared because he didn’t know what was going to happen after that.”

Tyler remembered thinking about the disaster.

“It just kinda kept me up at night,” Tyler said.

Branch was also 8 when he learned about 9/11. It was a shock. He said he didn’t know how to handle it then.

“I understood it was a bad thing,” Branch said. “I just didn’t understand how bad it actually was.”

Johnson was told about what happened before she left to see New York City with her family. She said she remembered being scared, but when they went, she said she wanted to see the memorial as opposed to seeing a play or a museum.

“Not all of it set in until I stepped foot into the memorial and looked at everything, like all the names, like all of it,” she said. “It was crazy.”

Samburgh also first experienced 9/11 by seeing the memorial. He said he was too young to understand what he was seeing, why it was there and that many people died there.

“But I do remember, when we were going in to get our passes and stuff, I saw a lot of mangled fire apparatus and different firefighting objects that were mangled and just destroyed,” he said. “And when we actually got in and were just walking along where the towers stood, it was just stunning because they were so big and it was just dead quiet in there. You’re in the middle of the city, and it’s just quiet.”

He said that was 10 years ago, but he remembers it clearly. He remembers a walkway with boots from some of the fallen firefighters.

Each said the actual events of 9/11 were hard to understand, but they appreciated the severity of what had happened. They learned it through the faces of those who had witnessed the events directly in front of them or on television. Samburgh said he remembers his parents’ faces when they told him.

“When they would talk about it, their facial expressions would go from being happy and joyful, and then they’d start frowning and get really, really upset,” he said. “I think overall it just impacted me. As I said, I was young, and I didn’t understand why they were so upset over this. I couldn’t really comprehend it.”

Johnson said she remembered her music teacher when she spoke to them about what happened. The coldness in her face. The sadness. The teacher had family who died in 9/11.

Learning about that day shook their sense of security. The began noticing locks and alarms. Branch said his sense of security in the United States wavered.

They said they’re aware of how the United States was a less anxious place before and how the attack changed much of that.

“And kinda after that, it was all metal detectors, schools got locks and all sorts of other stuff now that makes the students feel safer, but in my opinion, regardless, there’s still a way that somebody could do something,” Tyler said.

When asked if they felt that there’s always something that could go wrong, they all nodded their heads and said, “Yes, absolutely.” When asked if they feel they are living in a more dangerous time than in the past, they all said, “Yes, definitely.”

They feel they live in a world and an America that’s more worried. On Wednesday at 10:45 a.m., the school had a safety drill where everyone had to make their way to the gym. It was a moment that took them out of their day and brought the presence of danger back into their lives.

But that’s something they’ve each chosen to live with. They each volunteer with an emergency response team: Branch with the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department and Tyler, Johnson and Samburgh with the Saranac Lake Volunteer Rescue Squad. Samburgh also volunteers with the Paul Smiths-Gabriels Volunteer Fire Department.

Each wears a pager that signals if there’s an emergency in the community. When asked how often they worry something could go wrong, Branch said, “every time I hear my pager go off.”

“Every day, morning, night, lunch, any time of the day,” Samburgh said. “As volunteers, we’re called up 24/7, 365.”

Johnson said the worry first started to sink in when she heard about school shootings. Some of them have kits for treating gunshot wounds in their backpacks. They’re ready. Danger can come at any time.

These teens said they decided to choose this path and step into the danger for their community and for themselves.

“It gives me a feeling that I’m doing something good and that it’s making a difference,” Branch said.