HANNIBAL, Mo. — Twenty years ago today, the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil showed the heroism of first responders who put their own safety on the line to enter an unknown situation and rescue as many people as possible.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent rescue efforts. Firefighters, law enforcement officials and emergency medical responders rushed in immediately when word broke of the first Boeing 767 striking the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. The ensuing attacks which struck the south tower and the Pentagon building, as well as the attempt thwarted by a group of passengers in a fourth jet, took a tremendous human toll while serving to unite a grieving nation.
Ben Devlin, assistant fire chief with the Hannibal Fire Department, had been with the department four months when the attacks occurred. The gravity of the situation struck him and and his colleagues.
“We had just gotten off shift, and just watching all of that, being an actual firefighter … it’s one of those deals where you like to think that if you were put in that situation, you’d do the same thing,” he said. “We rush into stuff all the time, into situations where we don’t know if we’re coming out of. I imagine for those men and women who died that day, to them it was just another day doing their job.”
Devlin stressed police, EMS and other first responders all share the approach of entering a dangerous scenario where fear takes a back seat to saving lives. And he pointed out how it’s not possible to plan for every possible outcome. Less than 15 minutes after the Pentagon was hit, the north tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. The south tower collapsed at 10:30 a.m., killing and severely injuring thousands who were inside.
“They did some pretty tremendous stuff that day, that’s for sure,” Devlin said.
Northeast Missouri Emergency Communications Center Executive Director Mike Hall remembered hearing the news of the first tower being hit on the radio as he dropped his second-grade daughter off for school. He returned home to his toddler and wife, and he saw the second tower struck, then the Pentagon and Flight 93 after its crash landing in Pennsylvania.
Hall was scheduled for his dispatch shift at 2 p.m. that day, but he was called in early at noon.
“It was a very surreal time, because I think all indications were — between the Pentagon and the Pennsylvania plane and the other things that started happening around the country — we all assumed our country was at war and was under attack,” Hall said. “For a municipal dispatch center, that was a unique experience.”
Amid rumors of a possible fuel shortage, Hall remembers people fighting at gas stations in the early afternoon. The approach to public safety has changed forever since that day, he said.
“In the years following that — it’s a cliché, but our life in public safety, and 911 especially — it changed forever in that day, and we’ve never gone back,” Hall said, stressing a new emphasis and focus on areas like security, counter-terrorism efforts and hardening targets. “I think all the funding and efforts that occurred in the years afterward have had a benefit in protecting us.”
Hall said most of the money is gone now, but the benefits remain with strengthened protection at the federal and state levels. He said many international terrorism attempts have been prevented. Hall noted recent events, have put international terrorism unfortunately “back on the radar.”
Devlin also remembered how everything changed in an instant when the attacks hit. Each fire station was locked down as a precaution — threats were made across the nation. Hannibal Fire Department personnel kept all the bay doors locked and other doors locked, and firefighters began taking their trucks and gear with them for errands like groceries.
In the mid-2000s, the Hannibal Fire Department focused on HAZMAT training and response and weapons of mass destruction. Now there is a large team serving all of Region B, as a result of proactive measures.
“I think there has always been, but there’s a lot of pride in the fire service. In Hannibal, we don’t try to be better than anybody else as a fire department. We try to be the best that we can be,” Devlin said. “We’ve got our high-angle rescue, our swift water rescue, our EMS, our HAZMAT, our fire.”
Hall and Devlin both noticed how the time following the attacks served to bring Americans together during the time of uncertainty and healing. The country shared in the emotional upheaval of so many lives lost, and gained a new-found awareness for the jobs first responders perform every day.
“That did change the appreciation, the awareness, of the whole country on the sacrifices of our first responders they do every day,” Hall said. “It may not be a World Trade tower collapsing on them, but they still put themselves in harm’s way to protect others and keep our community safe.”
Devlin noticed how Americans came together following Sept. 11, providing support to one another and showing patriotism by hanging American flags in countless windows and waving from front porches.
“The country really came together back then, and stayed really unified for a year, couple years,” he said. “But it’s unfortunate to see that it’s kind of tapered off, and you look at the politics of this country today and it seems like everybody’s just fighting with everybody — both parties fight against each other — and you see separation in the country.
Hall said it’s important to continue to teach lessons learned that day to members of future generations.”
“We have to keep the memory alive in honor of the sacrifices that were made, and continue to be made every single day — here in Hannibal and across the country to serve others,” Hall said.