There are some events in our lives which leave an indelible mark, perhaps none more so than the loss of almost 3,000 innocent lives on the morning of 11 September 2001, when a pair of commercial airliners ploughed into the North and South Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, followed by two others: one which hit the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., and the other—thanks to the extreme heroism of its passengers and crew—which failed to reach its targets in Washington, D.C., and instead crashed into a field near Shanksville, Penn. In addition to 9/11’s civilian toll, the United States lost 343 firefighters of the New York City Fire Department, including a chaplain, two paramedics, and a fire marshal. At 10 a.m. EDT today (Friday), their memory was honored in a poignant ceremony at Fire Station-1 at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) industrial complex, with a recently-arrived I-beam fragment from the World Trade Center in pride of place.
The losses of that horrific day cannot be underestimated, for 9/11 was the worst terrorist attack in human history and the United States’ worst single loss of life since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Nonetheless, the efforts of those 343 firefighters—who surrendered their own lives in order to save others—marks a sharp contrast against the nihilistic desires of the hijackers, who sought only death and destruction and whose method of expressing themselves could find its only outlet through violence.
We are reminded today of the selfless sacrifice of Fire Chief Pete Ganci—the New York City Fire Department’s highest-ranking uniformed officer—who was tasked for jury duty on 9/11, yet immediately responded to the unfolding disaster, set up a command post close to the base of the North Tower, dug himself out of debris when the South Tower crumbled, and later stubbornly declared “I’m not leaving my men!” when it became apparent that a catastrophic collapse of the second tower was imminent. Killed alongside Ganci that day was First Deputy Commissioner of the Fire Department William Feehan, whose son, John, later remarked: “If there’s any consolation to come out of this, it is that he didn’t know he lost 200 of his men. He didn’t have to deal with that horrific fact.” Also killed was the Department’s chaplain, the Rev. Mychal Judge, who became 9/11’s first confirmed fatality, as well as Fire Marshal Ronald Bucca, who remarkably reached the 78th floor of the South Tower with Battalion Chief Orio Palmer in search of survivors. Bucca became the first fire marshal to lose his life in the line of duty during the New York City Fire Department’s history.
All told, 75 of New York City’s 255 firehouses across Brooklyn, Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island suffered the loss of at least one member, with the ages of those killed extending from 72-year-old First Deputy Commissioner Feehan to 23-year-old Firefighter Christopher Santora. In particular, Rescue Company 1—which celebrated its centenary in 2015—lost almost half of its personnel, including its captain, whilst Ladder Company 3 lost most of its men and its crumpled fire truck was subsequently lowered into the National September 11 Memorial & Museum for permanent exhibition.
Also lost on that terrible day was retired Air Force Col. Charles “Chuck” Jones, who might have flown a Department of Defense shuttle mission, had Challenger not been destroyed in January 1986. Jones had been selected by the Air Force in September 1982 as part of the second group of Manned Spaceflight Engineers (MSEs), destined for payload specialist slots aboard future military shuttle missions. At the time of the Challenger accident, Jones had been assigned to Mission 71B, which was scheduled for launch in December 1986 to deploy a Defense Support Program (DSP) infrared early-warning satellite, atop an Inertial Upper Stage (IUS). More than a decade later, on the morning of 9/11, Jones was a passenger aboard American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the North Tower.
Ten years after the tragedy, KSC firefighters approached NASA to request the construction of a dedicated 9/11 memorial at the Cape’s Fire Station 1. “As firefighters, we felt compelled in our hearts to build this Memorial to honor and respect those lost on that cool, clear September morning,” the NASA Kennedy Space Center Firefighters noted on their Facebook page. “Although NASA liked the concept, no budget was available, so the firefighters, along with community partners, built the memorial themselves.” At Fire Station 1, a pedestal was built by KSC contractor Hensel Phelps. It consisted of scaled replicas of the Twin Towers, together with a four-armed “Maltese Cross,” bearing the number “343” to honor the number of New York City Fire Department personnel lost on 9/11, and was backdropped by a pole-mounted U.S. national flag. It was dedicated in September 2012.
However, an artifact from the fallen towers was sought to complete the memorial. “With the assistance of KSC Center Director Robert Cabana and our Fire Chief Rick Anderson,” continued the Kennedy Space Center Firefighters, “we were successful in acquiring a WTC Artifact from the Port Authority of New York.” That artifact is a steel I-beam, measuring 7 feet (2.1 meters) in length, by 16 x 16 inches (40.6 x 40.6 cm), and weighing almost 2,000 pounds (900 kg). As part of the original World Trade Center, it served as a structural support member, but in the words of the KSC Firefighters its new role “will serve as a constant reminder of the cost of our freedom and the sacrifices made not only by those we lost in the attacks on America, but also those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice serving America both here and abroad.” At Fire Station 1, the I-beam sits across the tops of the scaled replicas of the Twin Towers.
Last month, a contingent of KSC firefighters and union representatives traveled to New York City to take possession of the artifact and escort it to Florida. It is touching that American Airlines—which lost Flight 11 into the North Tower of the World Trade Center and Flight 77 into the Pentagon—covered the cost of transporting the I-beam from New York to Miami on 14 August. For transit, the I-beam was accommodated in a specially-built wooden container, manufactured by American Airlines, which was itself draped in the U.S. national flag. “The Transport Workers Union of America Local 525 is assisting with some funding of the project,” it was noted, although “department members will be required to cover their own expenses and time off.”
The somber northbound procession to KSC was accompanied by current and former Florida firefighters, with local residents, veterans and emergency responders lining roadways and overpasses to pay tribute to those who fell on that dreadful day, 14 years ago. “We have been blessed so far by many who share the pride and passion we feel as Americans and Firefighters through in-kind donations in the construction of the Memorial base and site, for which we are extremely grateful,” the Kennedy Space Center Firefighters stressed on their Facebook page. “Many have reached out to us and, without their help, we could not make this dream possible.”
Today’s ceremony was hosted by KSC Associate Director Kelvin Manning and his words were heard by an audience which included representatives of the Spaceport Integration and Services Directorate, as well as local fire, rescue, and police personnel. As the pedestal, scaled towers, and I-beam were unveiled, attention could not fail to be drawn to the striking red, white, and blue of the Maltese Cross—whose origins during the medieval Crusades led it to eventually become a firefighters’ symbol—and the poignant number “343.” Functioning under the umbrella of the Spaceport Integration and Services Directorate, KSC’s fire and rescue personnel cover all eventualities, from car accidents to launch pad fuel leaks, with three operational 24/7 fire stations. As an integral part of the fabric of KSC, they have played a critical role in the history of the United States’ space program.
For those in orbit, aboard the International Space Station (ISS), remembering 9/11 has been a yearly period of observance. As described by AmericaSpace’s Sherry Valare, NASA astronaut Frank Culbertson—then serving as Commander of Expedition 3—was the only U.S. citizen not on the Home Planet when the two commercial airliners impacted the Twin Towers. “As he listened to the information, he realized that the ISS was crossing over southern Canada and fast approaching New England, so he quickly found a video camera and a window facing in the correct direction,” Valare wrote. “Once the ISS was positioned over Maine, about 400 miles (640 km) away from New York City, Culbertson positioned himself in the window to capture the haunting sight from above the destruction.”
His images of the aftermath of the disaster revealed a harrowing black smudge of smoke across New York City. “I could clearly see the city, it was a perfect-weather day all over the United States, and the only activity I could see was a big, black column of smoke coming out of New York City, over Long Island, and over the Atlantic,” he reflected later. “As I zoomed in with the video camera, I saw this big gray blob basically enveloping the southern part of Manhattan. What I was seeing was that the second tower had come down.” The pain, he said, “was like seeing a wound in the side of your country, of your family, your friends.” Culbertson also lost one of his old Naval Academy classmates, Charles “Chic” Burlingame III, who captained the hijacked American Airlines Flight 77, which hit the Pentagon.
Three months later, on 5 December 2001, Shuttle Endeavour was ready to rocket into orbit to bring Culbertson and his Russian crewmates, Vladimir Dezhurov and Mikhail Tyurin, back to Earth and deliver their replacements, the Expedition 4 team of Yuri Onufrienko, Carl Walz, and Dan Bursch. Endeavour’s pre-launch campaign had been heralded to be a heightened sense of security at KSC and even the exact times of rollout on 31 October were not immediately released. It was noted that NASA managers were considering the implementation of public affairs procedures not dissimilar to those utilized in past years for classified Department of Defense shuttle flights. Members of the public were barred from entering KSC on launch morning, with SWAT teams, hands-on ID checks, and random car inspections marking a significant departure from previous practice. A powerful mobile radar system was set up at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, capable of detecting objects as small as 9 feet (2.7 meters) from a distance of 230 miles (370 km), whilst F-15 aircraft patrolled KSC airspace, small aircraft were banned from flying within 35 miles (56 km) of the launch site, and the Coast Guard effected a 3-mile (5-km) coastal buffer. A Notice to Airmen and Mariners (NOTAM) announcement explicitly stated that non-compliance with procedures would be “subject to immediate military aircraft interception and the use of force.”
Meanwhile, in October 2001, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin had announced the “Flags for Heroes and Families” campaign to deliver almost 6,000 U.S. flags to the ISS aboard STS-108 as a memorial to the victims’ families and survivors of 9/11. In making the announcement, Goldin stressed that the flags were “a patriotic symbol of our strength and solidarity and our nation’s resolve to prevail.” Each flag measured 4 x 6 inches (10 x 15 cm) and would be returned to Earth aboard Endeavour, and handed over to the families and survivors. Also carried aloft was a large flag from the World Trade Center itself—marred, according to STS-108 Commander Dom Gorie, by “two small tears and you could smell the strong aroma of ashes”—together with a Marine Corps flag retrieved from the Pentagon and a U.S. flag from the Pennsylvania state capitol building. Other 9/11-related mementoes included 91 police badges, a large New York Fire Department flag, and a poster with images of all 343 firefighters who died in the attack.
During their time aboard the space station—at 8:46 a.m. EST on 11 December, three months to the minute since American Airlines Flight 11 hit the North Tower—the STS-108 and Expedition 3 and 4 crews paused for a moment of reflection. “In stark contrast to the international co-operation and unity in our effort to take mankind, literally, to the stars, we are reminded of our loss and sorrow due to the acts of violence and terror in an unprecedented attack on freedom, democracy and civilization itself,” remarked STS-108 Lead Flight Director Wayne Hale. He paid tribute to the many victims, “including more than 200 citizens from countries that are family members of the International Space Station program: Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Japan and Russia.” Additionally, in the Mission Control Center (MCC) at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, caps honoring the New York Police Department, the New York Fire Department, the New York Port Authority, and the New York Office of Emergency Management were displayed atop various consoles.
Yet perhaps the most poignant comment came from Dom Gorie himself, in the minutes before launching aboard Endeavour on the first post-9/11 shuttle mission. Three months after terrorists with no other means of expression, besides violence, had failed to bring a nation to its knees, the U.S. spirit returned to the fore. With the images of the 343 New York City Fire Department personnel safely aboard Endeavour, Gorie radioed his final words of thanks to Launch Director Mike Leinbach. He closed with “It’s time to let freedom roar.”
Indeed it was. And today, as KSC and the world remembers the passing of yet another 9/11 anniversary, that freedom continues to roar.