It was a great weekend. Joe Hartzel had spent the past three days taking his parents on a tour through New York City. His dad, Richard, was getting ready in 2001 to celebrate his 75th birthday, while his mom, Kitty, was approaching 72. They saw a Broadway show and took in the sights.

It was now Tuesday morning and the three Brookfield residents were killing some time before hopping on a plane for home. It was a beautiful morning, this Sept. 11, for wandering around Wall Street.

“We heard a rumbling, then looked up and saw all this paper flying, literally flying down on us,” said Joe Hartzel. Kitty suggested it might be some sort of ticker-tape parade, but Joe knew it wasn’t. Ticker tape didn’t come in 8 1/2-by-11 inch sheets – and it didn’t burn as it came down.

The three walked closer to the source of the sound, the World Trade Center, just a block or two away.

“When the second plane hit, we were looking up at it,” said Joe. “We saw a ball of flame. And that’s when everyone started running.”

Riverside police officer Bill Legg was just getting out of bed at about 8 a.m. He had finished his shift at midnight and flipped on the news to the sound of a newscaster saying that the Windows on the World restaurant on the top of the World Trade Center was on fire.

He paused to look at the screen.

“Just as I was watching that, I saw the second plane hit the tower live. I thought it was a movie,” said Legg. Soon enough, he knew it wasn’t. “I called in to work and they told me to be on stand-by.”

Joe Hartzel was confronted with a decision that continues to haunt him to this day. When the panic ensued and people started running for cover after the second plane hit the south tower, his dad collapsed. Joe’s immediate thought was “heart attack.”

Knowing that emergency crews would be rushing to the World Trade Center, Joe contemplated walking there to seek medical assistance.

“He was all pale,” said Joe. “I was thinking we could head to the Twin Towers and figuring we could get help there.”

He asked his dad what he wanted to do.

“He said, ‘Let’s go back to the hotel,'” said Joe. “It probably saved our lives.”

They got back to the hotel, put Richard in bed and turned on the TV.

“Then the building started shaking and we could see the first tower coming down,” Joe said. “It’s eerie speaking about it 10 years later. If we had gone there, we would have been there when the tower came down.”

The Hartzels wouldn’t leave the hotel until the next morning. When the towers fell, the building was engulfed in smoke and dust. Hartzel put damp towels under the doors, but the dust still found its way into the room.

The power went out and the Hartzels spent the rest of the night in pitch black and without any information about what was happening outside.

“What was really scary was that you heard the F-16s overhead,” said Joe. “You were in total dark and didn’t know what was going on.”

Bill Legg and Matt Buckley boarded a plane in January 2002 en route to New York City. Buckley, who was and still is both a Lyons police officer and Riverside firefighter, and Legg joined then-Lyons Police Chief Jim Ritz and other police officers from Berwyn and Cicero for the trip.

Their reason for going was to bring a donation the group had collected from fellow police officers and offer support to the crews who were still excavating the disaster site and recovering bodies from the wreckage. According to Buckley, the sight of the towers reduced to rubble was breathtaking.

“I definitely didn’t expect what we saw,” said Buckley. “Photos don’t come close to what it actually was.”

Legg’s memory of that day is still vivid.

“The day we got there was the last day they pulled human remains out,” said Legg. “I believe it was a female police officer, who was in a hallway. Smoke was still rising. It still smelled like death.”

Legg turned 40 in 2002. It was a milestone year for him and his trip to New York made that anniversary that much more meaningful.

“I didn’t spend money to get a pat on the back,” said Legg. “I did it to help. A lot of us wanted to do more.”

Buckley said that the New York and Port Authority police were grateful to have them visit. Buckley said the groups formed a bond that week.

“We became family with those guys,” Buckley said. “They lost a lot of good friends. But the way they treated us and responded – they were very professional and it was refreshing to see.”

Legg reflected on the sense of duty that marked the firefighters and police officers responding to the World Trade Center that morning, 10 years ago.

“Police officers, firefighters, EMS guys – we run to danger,” Legg said. “That’s why they did it. That’s what we do. We’re trained to go into dangerous situations.”

That decision on Sept. 11, 2001 – to walk away from the Twin Towers instead of toward them – is one Joe Hartzel thinks about all the time.

“I’m kind of leery going into taller buildings,” he said. “If something happens, I’m always thinking about how to get out, because every decision you make could be life or death, and that’s always on my mind now. That’s one of the big things that’s changed me. I always try to think ahead.”

Hartzel and his parents left their Wall Street hotel on Wednesday morning, Sept. 12. There were two choices – walk over the Brooklyn Bridge or walk north to 14th Street and out of lower Manhattan.

After leaving the hotel, where Joe Hartzel felt they had been taken advantage of, he found that everyone else he met on his way north was incredibly kind – from the police officer who gave him and his parents water and energy bars as they trekked north out of the disaster site, to the firefighter who gave them surgical masks to wear to filter out the lingering dust to the rental car employee in Queens who finally was able to wrangle them transportation home.

“For the next 30 days or so, it seemed like everyone in the country was so friendly,” said Joe Hartzel. “After that … well, we all know what happened after that.”

North Riverside Fire Department to mark 9/11 anniversary

The North Riverside Fire Department will commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks at the fire station, 2331 Desplaines Ave. on Sunday, Sept. 11, at 9:45 a.m.

This year’s event will feature Berwyn Fire Chief Denis O’Halloran as the keynote speaker. O’Halloran was part of the Illinois task force response to aid the New Orleans Fire Department after Hurricane Katrina. Also participating in the event will be the Chicago Fire Department Pipes and Drums and the MABAS Division 20 Honor Guard.

In addition to serving as a memorial for those who lost their lives on Sept. 11, 2001, the event is also a celebration of current emergency service workers and a memorial to police officers and firefighters who lost their lives in the line of duty in the past year.

The North Riverside Fire Department will also present a piece of steel from the World Trade Center wreckage to the village of North Riverside.

Any questions can be directed to Fire Chief Ken Rouleau or administrative aide Ralph Zaccariello at 447-1981.