National Fire Service Leaders Remember

"These people killed my friends, and terrified my other friends and neighbors."

National Fire Academy Superintendent Denis Onieal remembers Sept. 11, 2001 as if it were yesterday. Those images are forever part of him.

The Jersey City native was in his office at the NFA campus in Emmitsburg when he learned of the first WTC tower being hit by a plane. Moments after turning on a television, he, like millions across the nation, watched an airliner strike the second.

"I saw the way it hit - the sharp, high angle turn. There was no doubt. It was deliberate. We were under attack..."

The superintendent remembers getting a FDNY firefighter out of a classroom and into his office. "He was inconsolable."

Courses were suspended immediately. "There was no learning going on. These people wanted and needed to go homeā€¦But that wasn't easy either with air traffic suspended."

Onieal said while helping deal with a multitude of issues, his thoughts were of the fallen in New York. They weren't just fellow firefighters. They were friends; people who had been to his house, people who had shared events.

The next day he got a call to go to New York. "It was horrific. They lost six talented leaders in a matter of minutes."

Nothing could prepare him for what he was about to encounter as he approached the city. How would it look without the twin landmarks? He never needed a map when he went to the city for meetings or lunch, the towers guided him.

As he headed into the Holland Tunnel, he thought of the trips he made as a boy, standing on the backseat of his parent's car, watching the other vehicles. This time it was different. He was alone.


As he had hundreds of times, he turned to look at the towers. "The city had lost its two front teeth."

Also forged in his memory are the looks in the eyes of the firefighters. It was hard to fathom.

Onieal assisted in the command center, keeping tabs on various issues and helping make decisions. Images taken from space showed them where fires were still burning in the rubble

He remembers the teamwork and shear determination, especially by the firefighters working atop the rubble. "The men and women of the FDNY went to task. They did what they had to do and more..."

"I was and am extremely angry. These people killed my friends, and terrified my other friends and neighbors. Our lives will never be the same."

He's sad for the families of the people killed, and the children robbed of parents.

And, the veteran fire service official said he saw a whole different side of New York residents. "They stood in the streets with signs. They cheered us, and brought us water and food. It was a part of NYC I never knew."

He said heroes emerged that day when they were needed the most. And, they won't be forgotten.

The clock is running, and there's a heightened sense of urgency. The nation's first responders realize that, and are better prepared to meet challenges, said USFA Acting Director Charlie Dickinson,

What continues to impress him is the commitment of fire, rescue and EMS personnel. "Regardless of the risk, not one single company has said it won't be coming if someone in their community dials 9-1-1. They are more determined than ever to serve."

With the increased appetite for training, new technology and equipment, the USFA staff has tried to keep up the needs. "Everyone's focus is to be better prepared. Have things changed? You bet they have..."

Dickinson said the FIRE Act grants have allowed departments to purchase the latest tools of the trade, things they may have not been able to afford. Some lacked basic personal protective equipment.

"Mutual aid also is more robust than ever before. People are working together. They are the first line of defense, and they've accepted that responsibility."

Dickinson was in Washington, D.C. when America was attacked on 9-11. He was headed to a meeting about the FIRE Act grants when he received word.

There were fire trucks, ambulances and emergency vehicles everywhere. It's a good thing Smiley White was driving. He knew ways out of the city. We got to an intersection. I looked one way, the Pentagon was on fire. I then saw F-16s at the Washington Monument. I thought it was Armageddon."