Anyone who knows me can attest to my knowledge of history. I received this gift from my father, a World War II veteran who participated in three battle campaigns in Europe. 

One afternoon, I guess I was about 10 years old, he must have been feeling melancholy; he had photos and papers strewn all over the kitchen table. The photos were taken in France, Belgium, and Germany during the war. As he was explaining those photos, a worn browned piece of paper caught my attention. 

It stated “Greetings” on the top. I asked him what that was. It was his draft notice. He then went on to explain that he was drafted in 1942. I then asked, “What were you doing when Pearl Harbor was bombed” 

My mom, in the kitchen, immediately stated, “Oh, we were at White Castles.”

Now, if I asked all of you “Where were you when the towers fell?” everyone would immediately recall where they were, who they were with, and what they were doing. 

I was in Champaign at a fire investigators conference. We had just come from breakfast when the news of the first tower was on TV. After the second tower was struck, about 70 firefighters were crammed in the restaurant area watching, glued to the TV. 

We were stunned when the first tower fell and then in shock and disbelief when the second came down. I remember standing next to a couple who were just staying at the hotel, watching with us. When the second tower fell, with all the dust and debris, all that was caught on camera was “that noise,” the chirping of PASS devices. 

The couple asked me what that noise was. I turned and said, “That’s the sound of firefighters dying.”

I left the restaurant and went to my room to call the station. I was the deputy chief at the time. I spoke with Chief Salvino and asked if I should come home. He related just to stay there, and that everything was OK here. Everything was OK. Sort of a relief after what just took place.

That week was a blur. We had two instructors, fire officers from the New York City Fire Department. They couldn’t get on a plane so we finally got a rental car for them to get back home. What was going through their minds on that long drive? Everyone that week had an opinion on the actions of the event — from who actually was responsible to why did the buildings come down?

Hindsight, along with enough time to investigate an incident, is 20-20. As a fire officer, I wondered about the chief officers in the command post, how and what they were thinking, what exactly were the tactics that were to be put in place. What was going through their minds after the first tower fell with the fire companies committed inside and you had companies in the still standing tower.

It’s the job. When you sign up to be a firefighter or police officer, you sign up to place your life on the line to save others; sometimes even in desperate situations. Battalion 7 Chief Palmer was in the South Tower, the one struck second. He rode an elevator to the 41st floor and then took the stairs to the 78th floor. His last radio transmissions were, and I’ll paraphrase, “South stairway Adam, South Tower. … Ten-four, numerous civilians, were gonna need two engines up here.” Then the south tower started to collapse.

At the last moment, he thought that the fire department, his battalion, “New York City’s Bravest,” would be able to knock down the fire and rescue the civilians. That attempt speaks volumes for the dedication and actions those firefighters performed on that day.

A “mayday” was then broadcast across the radio to get the companies out of the North Tower. The confusion between trying to rescue as many people as you can and thoughts of self-preservation going on inside the stairwells was probably horrific. Firefighters being firefighters, I’m sure some companies disregarded the mayday or didn’t hear it, in an effort to save as many as possible.

We are here today, to remember those 343 firefighters, 23 police officers, and 37 port authority officers who perished while risking their lives on that tragic day. Their actions reflect on the fire and police services as true commitment to the people we serve. If not for those actions, many more would have perished.

I can’t imagine what the fire department went through in the days, weeks, months following, even today. Some individual companies were wiped out. Equipment gone, but not spirit, not pride in “the job.”

We must never forget the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. We must never forget the enormous sacrifice placed upon the department. There are departments locally that have lost personnel in the line of duty. When we make that supreme sacrifice, those around us are directly affected, but many more on the periphery are still affected.

We, as a society, should look to the past and take a page from our parents so that no generation shall ever forget the professionalism, heroism, and selfless sacrifices made by those who run into buildings when everyone else runs out. 

Where were you when the towers fell?

Lt. Carl Dropka (retired) was a member of the North Riverside Fire Department.