New York firefighter recalls horrors, heroism

DOVER — Whenever somebody asks Stephen Gregory if he’d be willing to participate in a program in remembrance of 9/11, he always has to stop and think about it.

It seems to get a little more difficult with each passing year.

However, Mr. Gregory, former Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) assistant fire commissioner for communications, usually agrees to make a presentation about the 9/11 terrorist attacks – not for himself, but in honor of the many friends and colleagues he lost that day.

Mr. Gregory recalled his personal experience of 9/11 at the fifth annual Sept. 11 Memorial Service, hosted by the Dover Air Force Base Fire Emergency Services, outside of the Air Mobility Command Museum on Monday morning.

“When I first get contacted to do one of these presentations about 9/11, I have reservations,” Mr. Gregory said. “Do I really want to go back in my mind and re-live that day? But I realize that it’s a chance to remember all of those that lost their lives that day and those who shared the last hours and minutes of their lives with me.

“I see those (World Trade Center twin towers) coming down and it plays on my mind almost every day. As I turned and saw the south tower coming down I thought, ‘Is this where I’m going to die?’”

Due to some quick thinking and good fortune, he wasn’t among those who perished that day.

However, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks did kill 2,996 people and injured more than 6,000 others as hijacked jetliners slammed into the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C. and another crashed near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The images of those twin towers crumbling to the ground, a massive fireball coming out of the side of the Pentagon and the debris field left by a jetliner brought down by the courageous acts of its passengers in a remote field in Pennsylvania are haunting – yet unforgettable.

Witnessing the horror

Mr. Gregory witnessed the horrors of that day as he responded to the World Trade Center from headquarters and established a staging area command post along with Assistant Chief Gerry Barbara just opposite the south tower, the first tower to fall.

His recollections were quite vivid when he said, “I recalled seeing those firefighters and first responders go into the World Trade Center towers in New York City. Never in my wildest dreams did I think these buildings would fall.”

Mr. Gregory remembered trying to escape as the south tower came crashing down. He found himself pressed up against a chain-link fence and pulling his helmet down before he was clobbered by a massive cloud of debris.

“It became the darkest and quietest (moment) that I have ever encountered,” he said. “You couldn’t breathe and you couldn’t see. It became serenely quiet and I figured I was about to die.”

However, the smoke and debris eventually cleared and somehow he had managed to survive.

Never forget …

“Right after 9/11 we made a promise, and that promise was ‘never forget,’” Mr. Gregory said. “I have that tattooed on my arm. And we kept that promise for nine years and seven months until Navy Seal Team Six went out and killed Osama bin Laden.”

The New York City Fire Department lost 343 members on 9/11.

Mr. Gregory will never forget. He’ll never forget watching Assistant Chief Barbara opt to go into the south tower just four minutes before it came crashing down, or just seeing the bodies scattered all around the towers.

“The department lost not simply 343 members, but we lost one member 343 times,” he said, reading a letter to firefighters from FDNY Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro.

“Today, we come together to remember each of those individuals. We also come as a fire department and as a family to give support and strength to each other.”

Sen. Tom Carper also spoke at the 9/11 Memorial Service, recalling one of the darkest days in American history.

Sen. Carper talked about going to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, for a memorial ceremony a couple of years ago and how it made him feel.

“If you ever have questions about the bravery and integrity of this country, go to Shanksville,” Sen. Carper told the crowd. “And if you can’t go to Shanksville, go to New York City for the 9/11 Memorial up there.”

Heather Kidney, of Gatlinburg, Tennessee, was touched by the ceremony on Monday morning, particularly hearing about those passengers on Flight 93 and their last-minute calls to family members before rushing the cockpit and bringing the plane down in Pennsylvania.

“It’s really important to remember these kinds of days because it could happen again,” Ms. Kidney said. “We’ve got to stay vigilant and stay aware of everything.”

A touching tribute

The 9/11 Memorial Service at DAFB had several memorable moments that provided chills for those who were gathered.

A massive United States flag tethered between the ladder trucks of the Camden-Wyoming and Milford (Carlisle) fire departments set the scene at the AMC Museum’s 9/11 Memorial, which features two pieces of steel from World Trade Center tower one, a rock from the United Airlines Flight 93 crash site and a block from the damaged portion of the Pentagon.

The ceremony began with the DAFB Honor Guard’s arrival with two axes, two rifles and two flags before the National Anthem was sang.

Rev. Blake Bowers, of the Delaware Volunteer Firefighter’s Association, gave the invocation prior to Mr. Gregory’s presentation about the impact 9/11 had on his life.

There were then five bell strikes repeated four times in memory of those who died on 9/11, the Dover Police & Fire Pipes and Drums performed “Amazing Grace” and then many in the crowd waited their turn to approach the wreath and pay their respects.

“The ceremony was a beautiful remembrance of those who served for us and who continue to serve for our great nation and for the protection of liberty around the world,” said Col. Ethan Griffin, 436th Airlift Wing Commander at DAFB.

“I think it’s important, as painful as it is at times, to remind ourselves and not forget those who served that day and the events that happened that day because it’s impacted and changed the course of history and the course of our nation.”

Mr. Gregory’s words of “Never forget” continued to ring.

“Some 16 years ago we gathered in the firehouses and EMS stations and began another day of service to the people of the city, not knowing what that day would bring,” Mr. Gregory said. “This can be said about every day in the life of career first responders.”

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