Saranac Lake — Sept. 11, 2001
Six members of the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department, all required to be EMT’s, responded to Ground Zero headquarters in New York City one week after the Twin Towers were attacked.
Thanks to John Derby who led that crew, Brianne Blade, Nick Marone, Vernon James, Bob Nadon and John Vallini; I am grateful to be able to place this story in the history of our village.
John was reluctant to be interviewed about that involvement. He said: “No matter how many pictures you see, there is nothing to prepare you for your emotions when you are there looking at the ruins, we were all numbed.”
John would not go into detail about what they saw, but began with: “As a paid driver [that is the actual title of the job] and member of the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department, I never imagined that our department would be called upon to assist in this event.”
I hope I am not putting words in John’s mouth but here is what he told me: “About one week after the attacks on the Twin Towers, North Country counties were asked to assemble rescue crews to assist in the rescue/recovery operations.”
They were told to bring what they needed as crews from Franklin County joined with the SLFD, including Tupper Lake, St. Regis Falls, Malone and the Franklin County Emergency Services. They assembled in the parking lot at the shopping center on Lake Flower Avenue.
Their instructions, Derby added, “were to go to the staging area at the Chelsea Pier on the West Side, where we would receive credentials and further orders.
“Our Saranac Lake crew was moved up to the corner of West and Vessey streets, which was just yards from the west end of Ground Zero. We divided our crew into three members each; we were on duty 24 hours with our two crews working 12-hour shifts while members of the New York Fire and Police Departments combed through the debris for victims.
“Our responsibility was to transport to hospitals anyone needing medical attention during this operation. The only people we transported were some that were injured during the recovery work at the site.”
John continued: “What stood out most with all the crew was the kindness shown to us by the people of New York City as they would walk around during their downtime. Business people and people on the street thanked us for coming down to help.”
They never had to buy food, he said, it was donated and always available at the site, and a nearby McDonald’s was open 24/7 serving food at no charge.
The USS Comfort was docked in the harbor a few blocks away where the crew could go for R&R if they wished.
John said that some of the time they slept in the truck.
John concluded: “A member of the Saranac Lake Volunteer Fire Department crew that responded with us, John A. Vallini, died recently of a 9/11 illness after fighting a courageous battle with that illness for the last seven years. He is one of the countless first responders who have died from 9/11 related illnesses.
“I can say we are proud that we were able to represent the Saranac Lake Fire Department and the North Country during a chaotic time in our nation’s history.”
How proud I was of my hometown as we walked down the avenue on Sept. 17 after viewing Ground Zero [as close as civilians were allowed] to see our Saranac Lake crew aboard the rescue truck arriving in the city.
An unusual coincidence
Then there is this dramatic irony of that terrible event. A disaster training meeting was taking place at the Saranac Lake Fire Department at 9 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001 — a meeting, as village manager, I was required by law to schedule. The plan was about the Lake Flower dam on Main Street and what to do if it was breached.
I picked up the official from New York City, who came to conduct the training, at his hotel and brought him to the firehouse where the room was filled with fire department officials, state police, local police and DEC personnel.
We walked into the meeting a couple of minutes after the first plane had struck the tower at 8:46 a.m. and we then watched the television as the second plane hit the North Tower at 9:03 a.m.
The room was in stunned silence. After a few minutes there was some brief, quiet small talk and everyone headed for their vehicles. The guy from Manhattan who actually lived in the city was immediately on the phone with his family.
An even more unusual coincidence
A couple of weeks later holding a staff meeting in my village office, Kent Robinson was in attendance.
Kent worked for the village of Saranac Lake as a fire department paid driver and a member of the volunteer fire department for more than 30 years; a laid-back, quiet, all-around nice guy. He worked numerous other jobs selling fire equipment, driving a cab and another job you can read about below.
So we are still talking about the event in NYC and “Kentsy,” in his quiet voice, says something like, “Yeah, it was quite a sight from the bridge.” I practically yelled, “Kentsy, what bridge, what the hell are you talking about?”
So, now in more detail than I learned in my office 20 years ago, I got Kentsy to tell his story in his own words.
“It’s hard to believe that it has been 20 years since 9/11. My day started at 2 am. I was working for the United States Olympic Training Center driving a 42-passenger bus. I was heading to JFK airport in New York City to pick up canoe and kayak athletes and their equipment.
“As I was driving over the Whitestone Bridge going into Queens and listening to the radio, all of a sudden the radio said a plane hit a building. I looked over and saw a hole in the tower. It had just happened because the smoke had not yet started to leave the building. The sky was clear. Then I immediately saw police cars, fire trucks and ambulances and I heard sirens until I left the city.
“Not knowing what was happening other than that a plane had hit the tower I got to JFK airport, picked up the athletes and their equipment and headed home.
I got almost to the Tappan Zee Bridge and was told to go back to the airport and pick up more athletes; it was clear going back to the airport.
“I contacted the training center about every hour to let them know it was okay. I got back to Lake Placid about 3 a.m. the next day.
“Every time I see the attack on TV I feel like the event is happening all over again. I will always remember, never forget, and I feel like I am a part of history.”
All you women and men who serve in any capacity with the rescue and fire squads deserve the thanks and appreciation of our community for what you do every day.
We know that you have witnessed awful scenes in car accidents, fires and at industrial sites that we can’t even imagine. Again, thank you, thank you.