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September 10, 2002

Lt. Jake Rixner

It’s hard to believe that a year has past since September 11, 2001. 
Everyone can remember where they were when news of the unfolding tragedy reached them. Promotional exams were forth coming in Richmond, Virginia.   Many firefighters were scrambling to qualify themselves to take the exam.  I was teaching an Officer I class at the Richmond Professional Firefighters union hall when an off duty fireman came in with the news, the World Trade Center had been struck by a plane.  Thinking it was probably a small Cessna and having about 5 minutes left to reach a convenient break point, we continued the class.
As soon as the break time was reached, the television was turned on and to our surprise tower one had a large hole in its side, and was burning on several floors.  Twenty years of being a New York City fire buff gave me a distinct advantage to share knowledge with the students of FDNY’s high-rise firefighting procedures. This was a once in a lifetime chance to share how the world's best fire department operated.

As the students gathered around the television, I explained that FDNY got 106 firemen on the first alarm on a 10-76 (working high-rise fire).  With over 1,000 high-rise buildings, and 120 years of experience in fighting high-rise fires, that's what they determined that they needed. This fire was probably a fifth alarm by now. I also explained how the command chiefs, to maintain order, handled the 1993 bombing as two separate incidents.  As students were asking questions about the operation, the second plane struck the South Tower on live television.  I felt my heart jump into my throat.  As I was a member of the first Instructor College for Terrorism and have taught Emergency Response to Terrorism for the past five years, there was no doubt in my mind that we were under attack, but by whom?

Up until the South Tower was struck, I remember thinking that many extraordinary rescues will be made today, and this event will dominate the annual Medal Day Ceremony next June.  I also knew that there was a good chance some individual firemen might make the supreme sacrifice doing what New York City firemen have always done best, putting other human beings’ welfare before their own.

As we continued to watch the scene unfold, the unthinkable happened, something that has never happened during a fire in a high-rise building in the USA since 1912 when the Equitable building collapsed in New York City.  The South Tower, Two World Trade Center, listed and began to collapse. Total shock was the feeling now throughout the room. Students couldn’t believe their eyes and when they looked at me, I said the first thing that entered my mind, “You just watched 300 firemen die.” 

Instinctively I knew it was that bad.  My mind raced with thoughts of friends and brothers. Men I have looked up to, and been friends with for years. Was Pete working?  Sal? Phil? Billy? Timmy? Champ? Andy? Kevin?  Ray? Jimmy? Cliff? Paul? Danny? George? Joe? Nick? Paddy? and many, many more.  Not knowing who was missing was torturous. I knew the Rescue Companies were going to take a big hit; their members wouldn’t be anywhere else.  That’s how they make the rescues that others find impossible.  This time it didn’t work out according to plan.
One year later, I still feel numb.  The New York City Fire Department took the first hit in this war. The funerals and memorial services still go on. I recently spent some time with my good friend Pete and he seems to be doing ok.   Some other friends were summoned to their higher reward at box 8087. I pray every day for both the living and the dead.  Please join me and pray for all these men.  Let us never forget what price the FDNY paid on September 11, 2001.  May God bless the U.S.A.

About the author
Jake Rixner is a fire Lieutenant with 20 years service in the Richmond, Virginia Fire Department. He previously worked as a firefighter in Washington DC. His fire service career started as a volunteer in Monroeville, Pennsylvania in 1978 at Company #5 (the busiest in Alleghany County). He has had articles featured in Fire Engineering Magazine and has instructed at the FDIC. He is an instructor in Virginia. Lt. Rixner holds an associate's degree in Fire Science. Lt. Rixner still volunteers in Kentland in Prince Georges County, MD.