Maryland Firefighters Share 9/11 Memories

As a tribute to honor the 10 year anniversary of this tragic event on September 11, 2001, I asked members of our Department to share their thoughts and memories.  The Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department played a role that day in support of our neighboring jurisdictions while continuing to protect our own county.  PGFD Fire/EMS units eventually were involved in operations at the Pentagon and in Arlington.  

In their own written words eights people took the time to convey what I had asked.  This group includes the person responsible for Fire/EMS Department actions that day, career and volunteer firefighters and administrative personnel.

Ronald D. Blackwell

September 11, 2001:   Acting Fire Chief, Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department

September 11, 2011:   Fire Chief, Wichita (Kansas) Fire Department

September 11, 2001 was to be a red-letter day for my family and me.   I was scheduled for a County Council Confirmation Hearing.  The Honorable Wayne K. Curry, County Executive had decided to appoint me the ninth Fire Chief of the Prince George’s County Fire and Emergency Medical Service Department.  Little did I know that morning that I would not be confirmed or what the day held.  It was a Tuesday, and an absolutely delightful Maryland weather day.  Temperatures were predicted to be upper seventies.  I was anxious and excited.  My mother and other family had come to Maryland for Ronnie’s Big Day.

We left our home in Bowie and it was a very quiet ride to the County Administration Building (CAB) in Upper Marlboro.  After we arrived at the CAB one our officers, a Battalion Chief (sadly, I don’t remember his name) asked if I had heard about what had happened in New York City.  I remember responding yes.  I also remember thinking what a tragedy and that the Fire Department of New York would have a very memorable day.  Entering the building my mind began to shift toward my speech to the County Council.  My wife, children and mother as well as several people that are very important to me would be there and I didn’t want to have a case of fumble mouth and embarrass anybody.

Outside the Council Chambers I sat and watched as my wife made last second adjustments to our children’s clothes and appearance as received several handshakes and well wishes.  Someone mentioned a second aircraft had struck the World Center.  I heard the comment but thought little about it as we waited.  My excitement was building as I noticed Carla Blue, Fire Captain and Assistant to the Director of Public Safety walking briskly toward me.  As she approached she said, “The County Executive wants to see you right now”.  I thought, right now?  Certainly not, right now.  I asked where?  She responded in his office.  I turned to my wife and mother told them I needed to go upstairs. but that I would be right back.

I rode the elevator up wondering what the County Executive could possible need that would require my immediate attention.  Arriving at the fifth floor the elevator doors opened where a normally subdued security team member frantically waved me toward the County Executive’s Office.  The floor was quiet and not the usually very active floor and I had come to expect.  I arrived at the County Executive’s Office and found him standing and staring and at a television monitor.  On the screen was the smoke of flames from the fire at the Pentagon. 

I did not fully appreciate what had occurred at the time (both towers at the World Trade Center had been struck, a plane was down or on its way down near Shanksville, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon was also under attack).  It was the largest attack of domestic terrorism in American history.  The County Executive was subdued yet resolute when he said, what is our plan?  I was a bit shocked and didn’t respond right away as I mentally tried to process what I saw on the television and County Executive’s question.   Suddenly, every bit of experience, training and fire service coursed through me.  America was at war, Prince George’s County could possibly have been targeted and citizens and residents of the County were counting on us to insure their safety.  I advised the County Executive the Fire and EMS Department was ready.  I also let him know information would be forthcoming from the Council of Governments and other sources about what was happening in the District of Columbia and the Region.  I then told him I needed to get to the Fire Services Building to initiate our response and coordinate planning.  As I turned to leave I felt a bit of calm.  It was as if I had trained and worked to be prepared for the day all my fire service life.

Outside the County Executive’s Office my team of emergency service professional’s had gathered.  William (Bill) R. McGown, Lieutenant Colonel – Emergency Operations, Maureen Hennessey, Lieutenant Colonel – Special Operations and Tyrone N. Wells, Lieutenant Colonel – Management Services had began the process addressing public safety in Prince George’s County.  I directed an emergency callback of all off-duty personnel, suspension of prevention maintenance activities so that all rolling stock that could be made available was to be placed in service, the hazardous materials and explosive ordinance disposal teams were to be placed on high alert and any potential terrorist target in the County should be identified.  I further advised them we would meet at the Fire Services Building in one hour and that they should be prepared to provide an update.  I then raced to my vehicle where Bill Hawkins waited to drive me across the County. 

Over the course of the next several days all our attention was turned toward what had occurred.  The men and women of our department performed at a very high level and in the highest traditions of the American fire service.  Command and control, response to the Pentagon and filling of fire stations in the District filled several days.  There was a feeling of unity during that time that is often rare.  I am to this very day very proud of the combined career, civilian and volunteer emergency family in Prince George’s County.

Although there was much work that remained to be done, Glenda Wilson, Chief of Staff arranged to have the confirmation hearing take place on September 13, 2001.  At the conclusion there was a brief celebration on the fifth floor of the CAB and then back to work.

 Thank you Prince George’s County for opportunity serve and a special thank you to all who served during that period in our department’s history.

Ronald D. Blackwell served as Fire Chief of the Prince George’s County Fire and Emergency Medical Service Department from September 13, 2001 until August 4, 2004.

Chauncey Bowers

September 11, 2001 - Captain/Press Information Officer

September 11, 2011 – Retired as a Major from PGFD,

Executive Director, Security & Emergency Management,

Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, NC

First aware of the New York incidents – I was driving down Route 193 near the Newton White Mansion when several national news desks started calling about a plane crash in New York.  Not long after that one of the networks called back saying a second plane crash had just occurred.  Each plane had struck a separate tower of the World Trade Center.

Role/action on 9/11/01 – My first item of the day was the swearing in ceremony for Fire Chief Ronald Blackwell.  We arrived at the County Administration Building in Upper Marlboro and could see a working fire off in the distance.  We assumed that DC had a working fire underway.  The only unusual item was the volume of smoke and the rich dark color of the smoke.  At the time we were not aware of the incident at the Pentagon.

Once inside the County Administration Building, County Executive Wayne Curry discussed the D.C. and New York incidents with Chief Blackwell.  Live television coverage was now being broadcast from both sites.  The swearing in ceremony was cancelled and everyone went to work orchestrating the largest staff mobilization in the Department’s history.

The rest of the day involved reacting to rapidly changing details that we all know very well now, but were unfolding at the time.  Making the connections about what was going on in New York, then to D.C., then to Pennsylvania.  In the meantime increasing our readiness to respond to anything in Prince George’s County, and offer mutual aide where possible.

I don’t recall the end of the day.  I recall it more as a period of time that lasted for several days and changed the way we did business going forward.  After experiencing the loss of 343 firefighters on September 11, 2001, it was clear that the Fire/EMS service was now on the front lines of responding to terrorism threats as well.

Later I had the opportunity to testify before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, in Washington, D.C., chaired by Senator Susan Collins of Maine.  We discussed the critical needs of the fire and EMS service including staffing and equipment.  This was part of the process that lead to the initial SAFER Act funding and the continued FIRE act funding for Department’s across the nation.

Mark E. Brady

September 11, 2001: Public Information Officer – PGFD

September 11, 2011: Manager – Public Relations and Chief Spokesperson - PGFD

September 11, 2001, was to be another day of pomp and circumstance for the Department.  The County Council would confirm another Fire Chief. To lead our combination Fire/EMS Department.  The event is always a proud day for the new chief, family, friends and members of the Department.   I serve the Department as one of two Public Information Officers (PIO) and I was responsible for broadcasting a Press Release about the Fire Chief’s confirmation.  I was sitting in front of a computer at home preparing the press release announcing the appointment of Ronald D. Blackwell as the County’s Fire Chief.  My wife had just dropped off our children at school and was on the way home when she heard on the radio that a “small” plane had hit one of the towers at the World Trade Center.  I turned on the television and watched live coverage of one of the towers burning.  My wife arrived home very soon after that and we both watched as the second plane hit the other tower.  We both looked at each other in a state of shock and knew that we were being attacked.  I called Chief Blackwell on the cell phone to ensure he knew what was occurring.  He instructed me to report to the County Administration Building (CAB) in Upper Marlboro, the site where he was to be confirmed.  Chief Blackwell was going to convene a meeting at the CAB to discuss the events occurring in New York.

Leaving my wife at home that day was one of the hardest things I have ever done as an employee of the Fire/EMS Department.  I have left home and family countless times to report to duty for emergency incidents and weather events but this time it was different.  My wife assured me that she was ok and encouraged me to go and do my job.  She was not panicked, had her contingency plans made and was insistent that I leave.  She was going back to school and pick up our children.  Her mother called to say she was coming to our house and planned to spend the day with the family.  This time was the most difficult to leave my home and family.  Later in the day, hundreds of personnel were to do the same thing.  I remained in contact with my family throughout the course of the day.

While I was driving to the CAB a plane hit the Pentagon.  I parked on the upper level of the parking garage and could see the rising column of thick black smoke miles away; it was smoke from the Pentagon.  Once inside the CAB I met other members of the Fire/EMS Department in Council Chambers, we did not have access to a TV and were learning of developments from phone calls.  My wife called and told me that one of the Towers had collapsed.  I could not comprehend what she was telling me and had her describe what she was seeing on the TV.  I still could not imagine what she was describing until I saw the image throughout the rest of the day replayed on TV. 

I remember vividly meeting with Ron Siarnicki who was scheduled to testify on behalf of Ron Blackwell before the council.  Siarnicki was Fire Chief in Prince George’s County when he accepted apposition of Executive Director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF).  Ron Blackwell had served as a Deputy under Chief Siarnicki and was replacing him as Chief.  While we were aware of the attacks, the World Trade Center collapse had not yet occurred, neither one of us knew what the next hours would mean for Ron Siarnicki and the NFFF.  For Chief Siarnicki the following days formed the foundation for his tenure as the Director of the NFFF.  He gathered a group of firefighters and went to New York to help and provide assistance to the FDNY and surviving family members of fallen firefighters.  What was once a one weekend a year memorial foundation has flourished under Siarnicki's leadership and is now a vital component of the fire service advocacy for firefighter safety and survival as well as providing services for surviving family members.  The number of firefighters suffering a line of duty death has now started to decrease, in my opinion, as a direct result of Ron Siarnicki and the NFFF, however, that's another story in itself.

Chief Blackwell arrived in the council hearing room after meeting with the County Executive in his office on the 5th floor and provided instructions for the Command Staff to report to the Fire Services Building in Landover Hills and open the Emergency Operations Center.  The confirmation hearing was postponed. 

Deputy Fire Chief Bill McGown instructed me to notify the media of a total recall of all firefighters and paramedics.  Media outlets were informed by phone and they did a great job in alerting all off-duty personnel it was time to report to their duty stations.  I recall telling my co-PIO, Chauncey Bowers, as we left the CAB and were going to our cars that we now know what it feels like to be attacked.  This is the closest that either one of else had been so close to a war.

While en route to the EOC, I contacted Diane Cunningham, PIO Administrative Assistant, to direct her to bring our PIO notification books and enough office supplies from Fire/EMS Department Headquarters in Largo to set up shop at the EOC in Landover Hills.  Once at the EOC, Chauncey, Diane and I monitored television broadcasts and made notes to bring up at the Executive Meetings being held every hour.  Our first couple of hours was “rumor control” of buildings being struck in Prince George’s County or reports of buildings on fire, etc.  Many reports were variations on what was really occurring.  For the most part PIO involvement at the EOC was slow as the media focus was at the Pentagon, New York and Shanksville.  We continued to monitor television and radio reports and continued to make notes.  We observed personnel coordinating the influx of firefighters and medics returning to work, career and volunteer, and the large contingent of apparatus that we were able to staff and deploy to fill in at District of Columbia Fire Stations.  Some of those units were subsequently dispatched to the fire at the Pentagon and Paramedics Units were dispatched to a staging area in Arlington, Virginia.

PIO operations wrapped up at about 11:30 pm that evening.  As far as media operations, inquires and requests from our Department remained at a minimum.

I returned home to find everyone still awake and watching TV.  I spent over an hour discussing what had occurred, what I had done that day and what I believed was to come in the days to come.

Teresa Ann Crisman

September 11, 2001: Community Developer – Community Outreach Office

September 11, 2011: Community Developer – Community Outreach Office

That morning was like they said one of the clearest days of September a clear day that you could see forever.   That weekend was great for the MDA softball tournament. As always we always have issues with it being too hot, too cold having to play 24 hours to catch up due to rain but that weekend was great.  The finals had concluded that Sunday night with as always, our goodbyes and see you laters and hugs to the many friends that this tournament has brought together through the years. 

On September 11, 2001 was to be a great day for the department. Chief Blackwell would be confirmed and sworn in as Chief of the Department. A proud moment for him and his family.  A proud moment for this department. But like every day in the fire service our days our not marked by a simple routine.  When the first plane hit the towers, I truly felt it was a fluke accident. It was a bad take off by the pilot, maybe something had gone wrong with the plane.  I would not think that this would lead to the next tower being attacked at that point when the second plane hit the towers I knew that this was not an accident.  That something was terribly wrong and at that moment our world changed.

I will remember as I was going to Upper Marlboro to the confirmation and swearing in of Chief Blackwell I called my brother John Michael. I said what do you think happened will the firemen be ok will my friends be ok and he flat out stated…”Firemen are going to die, people will die and get ready because it could happen here.  I thought about the teams from the FDNY that had played that weekend and playing in the finals and sitting and talking with them and saying goodbye to another year. I thought of the many that would not come home to their families and cried knowing that something bad has taken place.

A couple of days after, I received an email from Jack Mowatt telling me that three guys from the tournament had died. When I read the names I was crushed. Tommy Casoria, Kenny Watson and Billy Johnston.  Billy was great; he loved sports, football, soccer and loved softball.  Kenny was a very funny guy. He loved his cigars and loved to laugh.  And Tommy he celebrated his bachelor party that year at the tournament. He was to get married on October 13. He celebrated playing softball and just having a good time.  On Sunday night Kenny had come up to the trailer and wanted to know what the winning team was to get. I told Kenny if you get me to the IF game I’d show you. Kenny and I laughed because his team was out and Billy’s was still in. I said well make Billy get me to the IF game and we would see. The IF game didn’t happen. Billy and I said a goodbye that night. Asked him if he had to work on Monday and said nope going to relax. Told him that he played a great game and had an incredible weekend and to stay safe.  A couple of weeks later I heard from Billy’s sister, Christine and she told me that Billy had gone to work on that Tuesday and never unpacked from the tournament. That he got called in after traveling all day Monday and that a friend needed help and an early relief so he could be with his kids that morning.  Something that we do all the time. Making family first.

Each year as the Tournament celebrates another year of support towards Muscular Dystrophy it reminds us that there are three guys not playing.  Three friends not there to celebrate and laugh with.  That this tournament to me a reminder of that fateful day.  A reminder that at points, the 11th of September falls during this tournament.  And as the Tournament Committee we have made it known that the tournament will never forget those that have given the supreme sacrifice. That each year we will never forget the 343 firefighters of the FDNY.  We will never forget September 11, 2001. A day that changed the fire service’s history forever.

Diane V. Cunningham

September 11, 2001: Administrative Assistant - Public Information Office

Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department

September 11, 2011: Administrative Assistant - Public Information Office

Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department

Upon hearing the news that the Pentagon had been hit, I thought about all the people I knew who worked there.  Mostly, though, I thought about my cousin, Carrie Blagburn, 48, a budget analyst for the U.S. Army who also worked at the Pentagon.  I remember praying silently but fervently, as I and other family members frantically tried contacting her on her cell phone.  With each unanswered call there was an increasing sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.  Imagine what it must be like to have your loved one missing, yet still hear his or her voice on their phone message. Nevertheless, some of us continued to call because hearing her voice enabled us to hold on to her for a while.  It gave us a semblance of hope.  I remember the overwhelming sadness I felt as I empathized with her mom, husband and four children—especially her 22 year-old son, a soldier, who at the time was unable to immediately get home from Saudi Arabia.     

Ten years have passed, and Carrie never responded to our calls.  The U.S. Army lists her as “Unaccounted For.”

Carrie’s Bench, located in Arlington, Virginia, is one of 183 benches dedicated in memory of the lives lost at the Pentagon on that fateful day, September 11, 2001.    

Michael T. Hughes

September 11, 2001: Assistant Chief-Branchville Volunteer Fire Company,

Incident Commander, PGFD Units at THE PENTAGON,

September 11, 2011:   Branchville Volunteer Life Member, Past-Chief, Firefighter, EMT/B

As the PGFD Incident Commander, I had no idea what we were facing once inside THE PENTAGON. It soon became obvious this incident exceeded ANYTHING we'd ever faced.

The PGFD units that responded as DCFD's 3rd alarm all had been relocated to various DCFD stations were deployed as a group and directed to stage on Rte. 110 adjacent to the Command Post until given further orders.

Shortly after our arrival at the scene, we were led to our staging area - I395/Army-Navy Drive - where, as a group, we met and staged for approximately 20 minutes, after which we were directed to put all firefighters and officers aboard the four engines: E113, E352, E271 and E332, and were relocated to the main entrance inside the interior courtyard. It was there we developed our game plan: C11B would be the Incident Commander, C35 Operations and C2A (Mangum) and C27A (Fuller) the Team Leaders. Mont CO. DFRS BFC 1 was assigned with DFRS T6 (Bethesda) to compliment their staffing and operated along with our personnel. It should also be noted that 4 personnel from DCFD E18 (where E113 was transferred) operated as a part of E113's crew.

With armed personnel manning the entrance ports, the 33 members under my command did their job selflessly and with the highest degree of professionalism, patriotism and sense of duty. All egos were left at the door. Our crews operated flawlessly as a cohesive, professional unit and did so under the most dire conditions imaginable. Most disconcerting, however, was what we didn't know. You see, for the duration of our operation, we had no knowledge of any other potential targets or what may have been happening throughout the Country.

But we operated without a hitch and followed verbal direction from the Pentagon Command Post as received. With our member's safety paramount, it should be noted that during interior operations - approximately 6 hours in duration - we incurred only one slight injury to a member of our team, that being eye irritation. 

Without a doubt, in my previous 27 years, operating at THE PENTAGON on 9/11 was the most fulfilling - and challenging -- incident ever!

For all the wrong reasons a group of volunteer firefighters from Prince George's County were called upon to respond after our Nation's worst attack ever on home soil. And as a testament to their sense of Honor and Duty, they stepped up and put forth their best effort and did their job as proudly and honorably as humanly possible given the enormity and historical implications of the situation.

I will never be more proud.

Robert H. McCoy, Jr.

September 11, 2001:   Battalion Chief 1 for Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department

September 11, 2011:   Fire Chief of York Area United Fire and Rescue

On September 11, 2001, I was attending a hearing at the Fire Services Building in Landover Hills.  The meeting was to start at 0900 and I arrived at approximately 0850 to find personnel watching the North Tower of the World Trade Center burning.  There was speculation as to the size of the plane and the reason for the crash and we continued to watch until we started the hearing.  As we were preparing to turn the TV off, everyone in the room witnessed the South Tower hit by the commercial airplane ending speculation; we knew the United States was being attacked.  We commenced the hearing and although it was on my mind, it was still a distant issue and one that FDNY would handle.

At approximately 0940, all pagers in the room were alerted that another plan had hit the Pentagon.  The hearing was stopped and all Battalion Chiefs were ordered back to their Battalion.  Leaving the building, there was a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety over what had transpired.  There were many thoughts going through my head of being attacked, how many more planes, what additional targets are at risk.  As I left the Fire Services Building, I came to the top of Webster Street and my first vision was a clear view of the smoke column from the Pentagon.  At that point, I realized it was not just a New York issue; I understood the Capital region was hit and more attacks could be coming.  I also realized that the resources of the Northern Virginia and District of Columbia Fire Departments were committed to the Pentagon, and we would be utilized if the incident escalated or additional attacks were encountered. 

I returned to the Center of my Battalion at Station 8 and by then was notified of a complete Departmental recall.  Personnel were contacted and told to report to their stations as soon as possible.  We were receiving numerous reports that the amount of hijacked planes was unknown and one may be heading towards the White House and or Capitol.  With the help of my officers we assigned personnel to apparatus and started to address resource needs, if we were to be deployed.  I assigned Captain Gallagher to serve as my aide and we went to each station in the Battalion to ensure all stations were prepared.  As the Battalion Chief, I could see the anger in personnel as well as concern for what they may be in for as well as their families.  Many of the firefighters, including myself, were calling family members and making sure everyone was together, staying away from the District, pulling kids out of schools, etc.

The recall of personnel, the first in the Department’s history, was very successful in my opinion.  Although there was sadness and concern for the emergency workers involved at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, there was a great deal of pride in the career and volunteer members of Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department who reported to their stations immediately and prepared to respond to an unknown danger.  At some stations we had more personnel than we had riding positions, which required the movement of some apparatus to maximize our resources.  During the day, numerous units were alerted to and operated at the Pentagon to assist our partners in the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments. 

In 2005, I served as the Executive Officer for Fire Chief Lawrence Sedgwick and had the honor of recognizing all personnel who operated at the Pentagon with Certificates and 911 Uniforms Bars.  I also had the privilege of working with the Fire Chief’s Committee of the Council of Governments from 2005-2008 in addressing interoperability issues within the region, which many were identified as a result of 9/11.

Victor Weatherford

September 11, 2001:   Branchville Volunteer Firefighter and Past-President

September 11, 2011:   Past-President, Life Member and retired firefighter as of 9/11/11

On September 11, 2001 I was in my office in Beltsville and I received a call from my wife stating an airplane had hit the World Trade Center- as with most people I took it with a grain of salt and assumed it was a small private aircraft- I hung up and went on with my work.  Within a half hour I received another call saying another plane had hit the other tower, at this point I knew something big was happening. As my coworkers and I turned on the TV in the conference room the video of the second plane hitting the tower was playing. It was shortly after that when we started to hear of the Pentagon being hit and then the message on the bottom of the TV screen requesting all firefighters from all areas surrounding DC, career and volunteer, report to their stations for assignment.

As I arrived at the station Engine 113 had just left to be transferred to DC and Engine 11 was also out on a transfer within the county.  Now we were getting calls over the red phone asking for additional crews and apparatus to respond to other buildings in DC that had been attacked. At one point there was speculation that a plane had hit the Capital, the State Department had been hit, and there was another plane heading towards the White House. John Gardiner, Thomas Ferriera, and I started to gather spare equipment, dropping hose from the hose tower, and actually entertained putting the old Open Cab in service if necessary. As it turned out this was not necessary as all of the additional attacks were false.

As the day moved on we were staying in touch with our crew at the Pentagon and we learned that after five hours of the Pentagon burning fire department crews were allowed to start emergency operations and E-113 was assigned to provide water supply for all interior attacks, setting up in the courtyard next to a café ironically named the “Ground Zero Café” long before 9/11. Because Engine 113 was in the courtyard, it was staying for the duration of this operation.

Mike Hughes was the ranking officer from Branchville at the Pentagon and at 7PM he called the station looking for a relief crew. John Gardiner and I headed to the fire ground. Upon arriving, we met our crew at the entrance to the tunnel leading to the courtyard and they looked drained both physically and mentally. John and I report to the incident commander on side one- directly in front of the impact zone. It wasn’t until this point that the magnitude of the situation set in. See that gaping hole in the side of the most powerful building in the world was humbling to say the least.

As we worked our way into the courtyard, John took over pump operations first and I was assigned to take Military folks into certain areas away from the collapse zone for them to collect their belongings from offices. This went on for a while and then we were requested to set up a “collection area” in the courtyard- this, as it turned out, was a nice way to say set up a makeshift morgue.  After that, we alternated between pump operation and taking military personnel into the pentagon we were assigned to an Engine company from DC to do an interior attack to knock down the rekindle that had taken place on the top floor.  As we went inside there were quite a few scenes that stick with me today- from the collapsed two or three foot thick walls, to the exit point of the nose cone of the airplane between the “C” and “D” rings between corridors 5 & 6, the front landing gear that was at rest in the area between the “C” and “D” rings, to the handful of burnt bodies we came across inside the impact area- it was all a scene of mass destruction.

John and I stayed on site providing water supply and other duties until 9:30 AM the next day- At this point we too we drained.

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