We'll Be Fine: FDNY's John Salka on Remembering 9/11

Yes the faces look a little younger and the rigs are a little newer, but the FDNY is alive and well, and we are what I thought we would be when I said, "We'll be fine."

It has been five years since that sunny, fateful morning of September 11, 2001, when our fire service, America and the world changed forever. The horrific events that unfolded in New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania reverberated around the world and set in motion a chain of events that continues today.

The loss of life and destruction were unbelievable at the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. When I arrived there that day, several hours after the towers had fallen, taking several thousand citizens and 343 members of my beloved FDNY with them, I could hardly believe my eyes.

The collapsed buildings, the fires, the injured and the dead were everywhere. In spite of the fact that this was, without doubt, the most catastrophic and deadly scene any of us had ever faced, we did what firefighters do - we went to work. I can't really explain in words the thoughts or feelings that inspired us to move forward, but I can tell you that every firefighter and officer I saw that day was working harder than they ever had before.

We didn't have any long term goals or incident action plans that morning, but we all knew that those of us who remained, needed to be here and take the first steps in the long road to recovery.

As the days and weeks passed and the difficult, dangerous and emotionally draining work continued at the WTC site, some of us in the FDNY started to think about the future, ours and that of the FDNY. People started to ask how we would get through this and what was in store for "the job". I remember saying on more than one occasion that we, the FDNY, that we would be just fine.

By the time the official rescue and recovery operations were complete, the retirements had begun. Not only had the FDNY lost 343 members on 9/11, but thousands of firefighters and officers retired over the next several years. Like those lost on September 11th, the retirees were replaced with shiny new probies, thousands of them. It seemed for a while that every firefighter had just gotten on the job. The lack of experience was widespread and obvious. What was in store for the FDNY?

Well in addition to the many changes, updates and improvements the department made after 9/11, the scores of new firefighters, and new officers and new chiefs began to get some time under their belts and experience in the field. There are firefighters working in companies who have four and five years on the job who were hired after 9/11 and are part of the FDNY fabric. They have arrived and are gaining experience and knowledge every tour they work. They are running company events, repairing tools and equipment and studying for the lieutenants test.

When I look back to those uncertain and threatening days following September 11, 2001, I can still hear the question being asked, "What do you think is going to happen?" "How are we going to get past this?" I also remember that I thought that we would be just fine, and we are. Five years after our darkest day, you can walk into any FDNY firehouse and you will find exactly the same thing that you would have found on September 10, 2001.

You will find firefighters on the apparatus floor checking equipment or washing their apparatus. You will see company officers conducting drills and supervising house maintenance. You will find company chauffeurs inspecting and maintaining their apparatus. You will find all of the things that have always been there. Yes the faces look a little younger and the rigs are a little newer, but the FDNY is alive and well, and we are what I thought we would be when I said, "We'll be fine."