I can’t exactly describe what goes through me on this day each year. I can’t even explain why it impacts me so. I can only attempt to convey what it felt like for me, personally: as an American; as a firefighter; as a man. I write this as I sit up through the night, something that has become an involuntary tradition. Haunted by what happened, I simply cannot sleep, either because my mind is racing or because I am somehow compelled to stand watch and make sure that the sun does indeed rise yet again.
I woke up at 6:00am Mountain Time in my hotel room in Calgary, Alberta. I had been there over a month by then, opening a division for Hulcher Services, Inc. – a train wrecking/disaster remediation company – having taken a sabbatical from headhunting and recruiting due to the looming dotcom implosion. I was due to fly back home to my division in Minneapolis/t. Paul the following week after spending 6 weeks training and starting up the Calgary Division.
Just like any other morning, I showered, put on my duty shirt, my jeans and my steel-toed boots, opened the hotel room door, grabbed my USA Today off the floor outside and headed down to breakfast.
I’m a bit of a creature of habit. Some things I simply don’t like to think about, especially before I’ve had my first cup of coffee. Breakfast is chief among them. The friendly waitresses at the hotel cafe had understood this after a month or so and they had my black coffee and english muffin with peanut butter waiting for me, in front of my usual chair at my usual table. It felt nice to experience a little normalcy; a little sense of home in a job that regularly kept me thousands of miles away and on my feet working 24 hours a day for 2-3 days on end at irregular intervals. My schedule was not my own, dictated solely by the gods of disaster.
It was a warm, bright and beautiful day. The sun was strong and the sky ultra-blue there on the edge of the Alberta Rockies (a range so beautiful I had it tattooed across my back.) I sat and ate quietly, sipping at my coffee and browsing the headlines. My men, some of whom were little more than boys, filtered in slowly and sleepily one by one and sat at various tables to order their morning meals.
Then, suddenly, my world cracked… along with a cup of coffee that a patron had dropped when she saw what was unfolding on the television news. The hotel manager rushed in to get me and summon me into the lobby.
“Christian, you’re going to want to see this.”
There it was. The North Tower, billowing smoke. I said nothing for minutes; just stared agape; in awe and disbelief, listening intently as the news reports steadily got worse and worse. I cannot describe what goes through the mind of a firefighter when disaster strikes. There is concern, of course and adrenaline, most definitely, along with an insatiable desire to take action. There I stood, 3,000 miles away and I could think of nothing else but getting to that building immediately. This, most claim, is something you’re born with: some sort of reverse-wiring. When everyone else’s instinct is to run away from such dangers, yours is to run toward it. It isn’t bravery; it isn’t courage; it can’t be trained into you, nor can it can’t be trained out of you. It’s just the fabric from which you’re made.
I told the guys to finish their breakfast and called Hulcher Dispatch in Denton, Texas. They patched me through to Kent Decker, my Director. He’d already seen what was happening and expected my call.
“Deck, I gotta get there.” I pleaded.
“I know, Hollywood. I’ll do everything I can. I know it’s important to you, kid. Just keep everything under control up there. You know, there are going to be a lot of nervous guys walking around. They look up to you. Take care of them.”
Wise words from a wise man. Decker was like a father to me: an unflappable man whom I admired and relied upon greatly for advice and support, especially while doing such dangerous work and while being so far from home. Never set foot on a college campus, but very intelligent with a ton of horse sense. A train wrecker since high school, he’d seen it all and could handle anything.He was indefatigable; a natural force. You could drop a 747 in his back yard and he’d know exactly what to do and even if he didn’t, he’d figure it out so quickly you’d never know the differences. He’s definitely a man I look up to.
I walked back into the café. All the Canadians were so very kind and caring. They could see the American flags displayed on the sleeves of all the Hulcher men – the glassy eyes – and offered their condolences and support, something we truly needed just then. Sometimes, a kind touch from a stranger is exactly what you need.
A few minutes later, just after the South Tower was hit, I rounded up the boys and told them to load up the trucks, that we’d head to the shop immediately and that they could watch on TV there, but that those Caterpillars and 18-wheelers had better be in top shape and ready to roll because we truly didn’t know what might come next. Being a FEMA-certified emergency services firm, for all I knew, we might be among those called in to Manhattan. That’s the business we were in and we were the company they often called upon in times like these. After all, we had the resources… 85 divisions across North America. Hundreds of trucks loaded with hundreds of big Cats. Train derailments, floods, forest fires, hurricanes, tornadoes… you name it. Making enormous messes disappear… and quickly; that’s where the magic happens.
An hour or two later, I heard on TV something that devastated me. ALL U.S. borders were closed. NO entry permitted. All national air space was shut down. All commercial airline flights cancelled. I picked up the phone and called Decker.
“You gotta get me there, Deck.” by then I was begging. I was losing it. I knew it and he knew it. He was never a firefighter, but a career in trainwrecking with Hulcher was close enough for him to know that with hundreds of my brothers in that rubble I’d give my life to save just one.
“I talked to Glen”(Hulcher), he said. “We’re trying to send the corporate jet up there to pick you up and fly you to New York, or at least somewhere close. We might be able to get special FAA clearance through FEMA. Sit tight… we’re doing everything we can.”
There I was. Locked out of my own country, no idea for how long, away from my brothers at a time when – all logic aside – I felt I was needed most. I have never felt so helpless in all my life. It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had.
No matter how they tried – and boy did they try, for three days straight – they never got clearance on our jet. Nothing was allowed to fly but military aircraft. No exceptions. Anything that moved would be shot down. 72 hours later, I called Decker back yet again.
“Deck? Hey, it’s too late, Deck. They’re all gone. Call it off.” I said.
“Gone?” he asked.
“Yeah, Deck’ I said. ‘Gone. They’re all dead by now. They don’t really need me anymore. From here on out, they’re all just taking out the trash.”
“You tried, Hollywood. We all tried.” He replied.
“Yeah, Deck. We did. Thanks.”
That night, I did what any man would do in that situation: I got piss drunk. Whatever Jesus can’t fix, Jack Daniels can. The next morning, I got up and did what I had to do: I got back to business. The WTC wasn’t the only disaster in the world – we dealt with them daily and we’d be getting called out to another one soon. Within days, we were off on a 24 hour drive toward the edge of Alaska to pick up a train wreck in Smithers, B.C. Once there, we worked another 24 to get it all picked up. By the time we were done, I was completely exhausted and slept like a rock. I think God threw me a bone there just to keep me busy and keep my mind off things.
I didn’t return to the states until Christmas. Between September 11th and then, I learned a lot about what makes people great. Word spread around a bit and Calgary adopted us as their own. Needless to say, the drinks were quite often on the house. The Calgary Fire Department invited me to a 9/11 benefit dinner as their special guest. Since travel wasn’t allowed, the Chicago Blackhawks had to postpone their scheduled game and the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers played a benefit exhibition and had all the Americans stand up to be honored. I’ve heard The Star Spangled banner a thousands of times in my life, but it’ll never sound again like it that day, when 17,000 teary-eyed Canadians sang it for us with all the love in their hearts in the Saddledome. We talk a lot of trash, Americans and Canadians, but when we hurt, we hurt together.; always have.
When I did finally make it back into the US, I didn’t have a passport with me. We hadn’t needed them when I had left. That had changed. Everything, it seemed, had changed. All I had was a driver’s license and a Firefighter I.D. to prove my identity. Without saying a word, the NWA agent did something on the computer. All I know is that as a result, I got bumped to 1st class on every Northwest flight I took for the following year.
None of this, of course, could ever make a dent in the heartache I continue to feel for the fallen. It did help to show me, however, that regardless of what horrible acts man can and will ever commit upon man… goodness, love, kindness and the American Spirit will ultimately prevail.
I’ll leave you with something I wrote on the 1st anniversary of that fateful day.
Beautiful dawn. September morn. One great nation begins to stir,
Life moves on, our strength reborn, yet still we all recall that blur,
As two birds shining in the sky turned into balls of flaming gas;
Twin towers transformed before our eyes to twisted steel and broken glass.
Those angry men with darkened hearts rejoiced as people fell and burned,
As buildings dropped and came apart, a “great success”, they later learned.
While plumes of ash rose toward the sky and sirens wailed in city streets
As people wandered, wondering “why must evil prey upon the meek?”
One Great Hand rushed to their aid, so many fingers running round,
Thousands lost their lives that day; so much blood spilled upon that ground.
Desperate searching, day and night, a dark cloud looming over US
Choking people; uncertain fright, as hope died slowly in that dust.
As time passed on into the Fall, the air cleared up; the sky turned blue;
We tried to make sense of it all; to find our faith and hope anew;
And in the horror of that day we now see something very pure-
The sacrifices that men make to build a country that is sure…
Sure to withstand such evil deeds and stay the course our fathers set;
That any color race or creed can stand among us without threat;
That each child born within these bounds is given all we can provide;
That each woman and each man should look upon it all with pride.
Now to those men with darkened hearts: you may be good at making dust,
But fear will not tear US apart, while each of us his own God trusts;
You may bomb buildings and kill men and yet, one day that dust will settle;
We promise you now: we’ll rise again, you will never destroy our mettle.
copyright© 9.11.02, CR Fauchald