While many saw the surreal scene of buildings collapsing on 9/11, firefighters like Captain Rick Burroughs of the Monterey Park Fire Department immediately saw something very personal.
Like many on the west coast, he was getting ready to go to work when he was stopped short by the sight of several hijacked airplanes flying into the World Trade Center buildings, and later the Pentagon.
“It was the numbest feeling I’ve ever had in my life. I knew I just watched hundreds of firemen die in a split second,” he said.
He says the firefighters would have been going up the stairs of the World Trade Center buildings soon after the airplanes hit, not suspecting that the entire building would collapse. No other building has collapsed quite the way the World Trade Center buildings collapsed, each floor crushing into the next, creating explosion after explosion, he says.
The next day Burroughs asked for a list of the names of the firefighters he knew would not be showing up to work the next day.
“Everyone knows who’s on duty… by morning, on the 12th they knew who were missing,” he said.
The New York Fire Department released the 343 names to him.
In the ten years since 9/11, Burroughs has brought the list out again and again as a reminder for younger firefighters. “To me and all of us that are in the business, that day is very personal,” he says.
The young firefighters would pore over each name carefully, to get a sense of the “walking, talking men that morning who answered that call of duty and perished in the middle of it,” he said.
At annual memorial ceremonies, Burroughs would also create a makeshift memorial by posting sheets of paper with the 343 names onto the side of a fire engine.
He first posted the list at the South Garfield fire station two days after 9/11. “It gave people in Monterey Park a way to mourn the loss of the firefighters … when we opened the doors of the fire station, we had to stop to move all of the flowers off to the flagpole,” he recalled.
For Burroughs, reading the names of the firefighters missing at ground zero makes him want to go home to see his family, and motivates him to “know everything I possibly can about this job.”
Firefighting has embraced the idea of “preparedness” since 9/11, whether it’s patching up a neighbor’s broken bones, or spotting suspicious activity, he says. One of the most frustrating things Burroughs says he felt that day was not getting orders to get on a plane to offer assistance at ground zero.
Firefighting used to be about answering calls to a brush or building fires, but now it means being vigilant and getting regular training in counter terrorism techniques, he says.
“It’s a good distracter,” he says. “I’m not sitting home twiddling my thumbs worried about an event. I’m more of the mindset that I’ll be ready when an event happens.”
But now, ten years later, with budgets from the local up to the federal level becoming constrained, cutbacks will start occurring, he said.
“My greatest fear is that Americans have short memories,” Burroughs says. “I know funding cutbacks have greatly reduced on national preparedness. I hate to see what happens ten more years from now. Where nothing has happened and cutbacks have occurred, that’s when we become vulnerable again.”