Former NJ fireman recalls 9/11 at Dover Air Force Base ceremony

Airman First Class Devin Oliver rings a bell during a 9/11 ceremony at the Dover Air Force Base on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — Working on rescue and recovery operations amid the rubble of the World Trade Center in New York City the day after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, firefighter Jack Dunne looked around and saw the patriotism, camaraderie and teamwork that was taking place among thousands of first responders.

It was a scene that forever changed Mr. Dunne’s life — as he was a witness to both triumphs and tragedies, all at the same time.

Mr. Dunne, a retired battalion chief for the Bayonne Fire Department in New Jersey and a retired Air Force firefighter, served as the keynote speaker on Friday at a socially distanced 9/11 memorial ceremony that was held inside of Dover Air Force Base Fire Station 58.

Due to COVID-19 precautions, the event was held by invitation only, but still managed to stir up emotions of that beautiful September day 19 years ago that turned tragic in a matter of minutes.

“Don’t ever forget. United we stand. Let’s roll. Does everyone still feel that way?” Mr. Dunne asked the crowd of around 100 in attendance. “Everybody that’s here, thank you for taking the time because we are taking action and we’re showing that we’re not going to forget what happened on 9/11 — even during a pandemic. We’re here … and we remember.”

The 9/11 ceremony began when Joey Moran, a member of the Dover Fire Pipes and Drums, came walking down the center aisle playing his bagpipes, which brought goosebumps to many.

The Dover Air Force Base Honor Guard presented the colors before the national anthem was played and an invocational prayer took place.

Mr. Dunne then talked about his personal experience on 9/11, a day when terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. – and another attempt that led to a passenger uprising on Flight 93 and ended in a plane crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania – combined to leave nearly 3,000 Americans dead and more than 6,000 others injured, changing most people’s views of the world in the process.

Mr. Dunne recalled that he was out for a morning run at Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, when he “had the unique experience of being on the other side of the Hudson River prior to the attacks and after the attacks.”

Dover Fire Department’s Pipes & Drums Pipe Major Joey Moran plays Taps during a 9/11 ceremony at the Dover Air Force Base on Friday.

“When I was done that day and I left the park — and it was a beautiful summer day on September 11th — little did I know that I would never see those two majestic towers that we in New Jersey call the ‘Twin Towers,’ he said. “They were just something that was always there.”

Memories of things such as riding the elevators in the World Trade Center for fun when he was a kid stormed into his mind.

“Shortly after leaving the park I learned of the evil and the cowardly attacks, and I really stress that — evil and cowardly,” Mr. Dunne said. “But, when the greatest military in the world responded, it was met with strength and justice.

“After the attacks occurred, I left Liberty State Park and I watched the Twin Towers burning in disbelief. To be honest with you, as a captain at the time in the fire department, I looked at those buildings and I knew the magnitude of the loss of life that was ongoing right at that very moment.”

He added that first responders saw things “that people shouldn’t have to see” and he knew that it was going to be one of the hardest days in the history of the New York City Fire Department, Police Department, Port Authority and everybody involved.

“They went above and beyond the call of duty in the largest rescue and evacuation that the world has ever seen,” said Mr. Dunne. “They saved thousands of lives. There were 50,000 people that would have been in the Twin Towers. Every life counts … and they made the ultimate sacrifice.”

He said that many first responders are still battling 9/11, noting that in a short period of time, the firefighters at the New York City Fire Department who will die of cancer will exceed the 343 firemen that made the ultimate sacrifice on 9/11.

Unforgettable memories

There are many images that Mr. Dunne will never be able to erase from his mind after responding to Ground Zero on Sept. 12 with other members of the Bayonne, New Jersey Fire Department.

Airmen stand during the Dover Fire Department’s Pipes & Drums playing of Taps during a 9/11 ceremony at the Dover Air Force Base on Friday.

Things like taking the Staten Island Ferry over to Battery Park and crossing paths with the exhausted first responders who were returning after serving as the initial team at the scene of the Twin Towers after they collapsed after being struck by hijacked aircraft.

“We were listening to the scanners in New York and we’d never heard anything like this before,” said Mr. Dunne. “The massive fires that were all over the buildings from jet fuel, the search and rescue operations that were going on, and then sadly, the roll calls where no firefighter answered. We knew that we were going into a situation where we’ve never been before.

“Walking up to Ground Zero still today is hard to put into words. The only word that comes to mind to me is ‘surreal.’ That’s what is was. You saw the pancaked collapse of two of the tallest buildings we had in our nation. All you saw was steel, rebar, concrete … fires everywhere, buildings fallen onto other buildings, crushed vehicles. It was something we never saw before and, hopefully, we never will again.”

However, another thing Mr. Dunne quickly noticed was the thousands of first responders working in unison, just hoping they could rescue a fellow human being.

“The sight, the smell — nobody could get the smell — it’s beyond human comprehension,” he said. “What you saw on TV, it was much worse. But there was camaraderie. There was patriotism. There was strength and resolve that on this darkest day we would not be defeated.”

Mr. Dunne said he was honored to speak about his 9/11 experience at Dover Air Force Base on “hallowed ground where all of America’s heroes come back after they gave the ultimate sacrifice.”

He concluded his speech by saying the United States could use the feelings of unity and teamwork experienced in the aftermath of 9/11 again, rather than the division that is taking place all over the country.

“It (9/11) changed all of us forever,” Mr. Dunne said. “It made you want to be a better person and made you want to do something for your country. America … this country is the greatest country in the world.

“God bless all of you, all of our troops, God bless America, and let’s all unite again and stand together and put this country back to where it was in unity 19 years ago. I think that all of us can play a role in doing that and that would be a great way to honor all the innocent lives that were lost (on 9/11) and all of the heroes — first responders and our military personnel. We will never forget.”

Airman First Class Devin Oliver rang the fire department’s ceremonial bell for the civilians and first responders who died on 9/11. The ringing of the bell is a tradition that goes back to 1865. Before modern communication techniques, fire houses used to exchange announcements and alarms through the ringing of bells, the signal to mark the line-of-duty death of a firefighter or death of an official was five individual bell strikes in four sets.

Keynote speaker Retired Battalion Fire Chief Jack Dunne talks with Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen about his experiences during the recovery days after the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City at a 9/11 ceremony at the Dover Air Force Base on Friday.

Airman Oliver also laid a wreath in memory of the 9/11 victims the Dover Fire Pipes and Drums performed their stirring version of “Amazing Grace.”

“Being one of the younger guys here at the station and not really having a personal experience with something like the events that happened on 9/11, I wouldn’t say it’s how everyone else feels, but it’s a certain feeling of duty and being able to be ringing that bell is just really emotional,” Mr. Oliver said. “It almost brought me to tears.”

Change in venue

The annual 9/11 Memorial Ceremony, hosted by Dover AFB Fire Emergency Services in partnership with local first responders, was moved from its traditional venue at the actual memorial site adjacent to the Air Mobility Command Museum due to weather concerns.

A giant American flag, rows of firetrucks and apparel turned out to be the perfect backdrop for the ceremony – and nobody got wet.

Col. Matthew Jones, 436th Airlift Wing commander, said events like the ceremony at DAFB on Friday are important.

“In response to an attack designed to break our nation, we as Americans, as first responders, as airmen, found new resolve to defend our country, our people and our home,” Col. Jones said. “Although painful to relive, it’s memorials like these that remind us and the next generation of our promise to answer our nation’s call and to never forget.”

Staff Sgt. Daniel Kolk, a captain in the DAFB Fire Department, was one of the organizers of Friday’s event. He said the annual 9/11 ceremony is an important tradition to continue.

A member of the Dover Air Force Base Color Guard prepares an American flag during the presentation of colors at a 9/11 ceremony at the Dover Air Force Base on Friday.

“The only way we can remember it is about talking and you have to talk to remember,” Staff Sgt. Kolk said. “We like to introduce this event into our fire service and into the Air Force so that way no one ever does forget what that day was about and how we are remembering them. It’s all about who sacrificed their lives that day, what happened that day and how we all came together that day.

“We don’t ever want to forget. I’ll always be a part of this, and the Dover Fire Department and Dover Air Force Base will always be a part of this because that is such a day to remember and to never forget. You can’t just let these things get lost in history. It needs to be talked about every single 9/11 that happens.”