Texas Hunting Community Honors NYFD 9/11 Heroes
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Photographs can conjure up emotion and an image can capture and evoke passion. Personal experience is in-your-face reality.
On September 11, 2001, four U.S. planes hijacked by terrorists crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. The world’s fifth and sixth tallest buildings were crushed into 1.8 million tons of smoking concrete, ash and molten-hot steel, a tomb for nearly 3000 souls piled upon souls.
If, for a moment, you could place yourself in the most vivid image you have seen of that fateful day, the image that summons to mind the most feeling, the image that made you gasp and shake your head and provoked tears to fall uninhibited from your eyes. If you could place yourself in that image for a mere 20 seconds and immediately be assaulted with the sight of nothing short of an apocalyptic nightmare, the smells, the noise, fear and adrenaline and ask yourself what would you do? Would you run to the building, having full knowledge that you could not get out, or would you turn and run away to safety?
As a writer it is my job to put myself in other’s shoes, to see what they see, feel what they feel. As hard as I try, as many images as I witness, I am unable to perform such a feat.
Since 9/11 the word “hero” has been written thousands of times. The firefighters, EMT’s and law enforcement, of who all took the stairs of the Twin Towers in New York City that day, the military personnel who rushed into the burning Pentagon offices, the countless people in the burning Twin Towers that sacrificed their lives to help others, and the flight crew and passengers on the hijacked jets, did not wake up that fateful morning thinking this was the day to be a hero. Their parts were unscripted. There were no first drafts, no cut-and-paste edits to smooth over the rough parts, and the plot was clearly not written well, because the happy endings were few.
Nonetheless, they were, that day, heroes and remain heroes. At times I believe it is the heroism, more than the tragedy that continues to keep our interest. It is the triumphs of the human spirit.
Behind the staggering number of dead are the individuals who feel the national tragedy on a personal level. You can go to an endless number of websites on the internet and read stories written about the lost, the ones who perished, and then there are stories of the heroes, the survivors and the families left behind.
When Tony Dukes, founder of Red, White, Blue Outdoors put out a call for an outfitter to host four men from the New York Fire Department Rescue, men who were first responders on September 11, the Texas hunting community answered the call. Brian Davenport and Tony Cirillo, owners of Fin and Fowl Outfitters, responded overwhelmingly without hesitation, as well as Artie Presley, owner of the beautiful Oak Island Lodge in Anahuac, Texas. They opened up their doors and duck blinds, hoping to “give back” to the men who still, seven years later, live with the memories of standing on ground zero, fighting an unseen enemy, losing ground at a tremendous rate of speed, yet facing Hell, toe-to-toe, in a battle some would live to tell about and others would be remembered with memorials, pictures and most of all, memories.
Texans are strong and filled with fortitude; we are fighters in the face of adversity. As Texans, we lived each desperate moment of 9/11 through the media. As we watched, we cried in disbelief, and we waited out the terrible moments, then days, which turned into months and years. Texas based Red, White, Blue Outdoors, Fin and Fowl Outfitters and Oak Island Lodge wanted to show their appreciation and Texas hospitality to the four men from the NYFD, who put on a uniform everyday and kiss their families goodbye as if it were the last time, these men who fought the demon of 9/11 and survived. I was honored to have an opportunity to tag along on the hunt.
After nearly a yearlong wait to meet four of our nation’s heroes, upon my arrival at Oak Island Lodge, three men of normal size and stature with easy smiles greeted me, with a propensity for good-natured ribbing.
They were simply: men. Men, who faced unimaginable odds; faced unwavering, the evil face of fear on the bleakest and darkest of days on our nation’s soil.With only a handshake, a brotherhood was formed and with a smile, a friendship blossomed.
Carl Gelardi and Jim Hodges with Rescue Station 1, and Chris “Smitty” Smith with Rescue Station 3, with an accumulated 30 years on the force, were eager to hit the blinds early the next morning. Chris Mandeville was unable to make the trip due to an unexpected, last minute illness that put him in the hospital the day before he was scheduled to arrive in Texas. As sick as he might have been, he joked that missing the trip nearly killed him. Mandeville is a spokesman for the 9/11 NYFD and spoke candidly over the phone about the morale of the NYFD firefighters since 9/11. “There used to be guys that would reach twenty years, retirement status, and would continue on for maybe ten more years. Since 9/11, men are reaching their twenty years and retiring, they are finding other jobs, and second jobs, realizing they won’t do their families any good if they are not around. There are about 11,000 firefighters in New York and I would guess about 5,000 are rookies.”
Mandeville added, “After the Oklahoma bombing, another act of terrorism, the clean up of the remains took about three days. Four months later, at the Twin Towers, we were still cleaning up remains, if they weren’t vaporized. We would find missing firefighters, still in their service coat with their name across the back, and realize that just a month before 9/11 this guy grabbed my jacket as I almost tumbled off the roof of a building; you realize this man saved my life. It’s been hard.”
Six years later remains are still showing up in sewers and most recently, this past year, remains were discovered on the roof of the Deutsche Bank, which was severely damaged during 9/11 and was finally set for demolition.
But, in Anahuac, Texas at five o’clock Friday morning, all talk turned to duck strategy and Texas hunting. Davenport and his crew had been letting their “honey-hole” rest all week. But, now, with the firefighters and myself in tow, we waded into the marsh, loaded up into the ground blind and waited. The weather did not fully cooperate; it was crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky and about a three-mile-an-hour wind, nothing for the birds to set their wings in. There was a good amount of birds coming in, but fast and hard, and a few missed shots in the beginning ended the morning with only a few Teale Ducks, a Green-Headed Mallard and a Spoonbill, for a total of nine ducks.
That evening a hog hunt did not produce any pork, even though the night before when Davenport and I scouted the area we saw several hogs around the blinds.
Talking with the guys at the lodge I asked them about September 11th, when the call went out, did they have any idea that things were going to get as bad as it did? Smitty replied, “We knew going in it was horrific, we knew we may not come out. One guy on medical leave ran into the station and put down his wallet, his keys and wrote a good-bye letter to his wife and ran out of the door. We never saw him again. That is just what we do; we took an oath.” Hodges added that they want people to remember. “I know people want to be a part of that day and as far as I am concerned they can have my part.” With a shake of his head he added, “But I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
When I asked what was one thing they would like for me to tell people it was the overwhelming response from all three men. Thank the people who have reached out in support, the people who came to help after 9/11, the people who continuously write in letters and send gifts, and the people like Red, White, Blue Outdoors, Fin and Fowl Outfitters and Oak Island Lodge.
Hodges said that what makes the New York City Fire Department unique is the brotherhood. “After a funeral for one of our fallen we throw a party, people might think that is weird. We mourn on Memorial Day and at a funeral. Then we celebrate life.”
People talk about heroes on a football field or in a baseball game; these people can be role models, but until you have spent a day with men like Carl Gelardi, Chris “Smitty” Smith, Jim Hodges, Brian Davenport and Artie Presley, you have no concept of what a true hero is. When you stand in a room with men like these, you realize you are in the best of company.
For all the politics, bombs, and battles in the wake of September 11, 2001, what strikes me is the more personal vacancy expressed by these three men of the New York City Fire Department. It is the remembered absence of touch and sight and voice, it is a severing of personal histories. We as a nation must always remember; we as a nation must never forget. As we pay tribute to the September 11 individuals, we are reminded that freedom is never free, it is a gift purchased by others at a great cost.
© February 2008
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