By PHIL ATTINGER
SEBRING — Late this month, emergency personnel and civilians will get to march together up steps and over balconies to commemorate fallen firefighters.
The first 343 participants registered for the Sept. 29 Stair Climb at Sebring International Raceway will wear badges bearing names and photographs of firefighters who started that climb into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
They were among 2,977 killed in the attacks, while civilians and emergency responders nationwide watched on television.
Now 18 years since Sept. 11, 2001, most young emergency personnel hired today don’t remember it, said Highlands County Fire Rescue Chief Marc Bashoor.
He told the Highlands News-Sun that older personnel must teach young emergency responders the full impact of what happened that day.
Bashoor, a Maryland firefighter at the time, remembers being at the Prince George County Council meeting that morning, awaiting the swearing in of their new chief.
They had pagers and either push-to-talk or flip-phones: No smartphones and no social media to give updates. For that, all they had was television and radio coverage.
Bashoor said the first plane at 8:46 a.m. didn’t garner much attention. The second got the “puppy tilt” look from responders, knowing something wasn’t right. By 9 a.m., the meeting was on hold, and he was preparing to set up the county’s Emergency Operations Center.
Later, they saw plumes of smoke rising from the west, and would learn it was where Flight 77 hit the Pentagon, less than 20 miles away.
They’d also learn of Flight 93 crashing in a field. It’s believed it was headed for Capitol Hill and a joint session of Congress.
“Had they been successful in knocking out all our elected officials, I can’t fathom the potential anarchy,” Bashoor said.
In a column for FireRescue1.com, Bashoor wrote that the day played out like a horror movie with bodies falling from the Towers, fire engines crushed in the debris and buildings collapsing one after another.
Fear for family
Sebring native Faith Blount, in Wisconsin at the time, expecting her first child, saw it at home on television.
“I cried all day,” Blount said. “I was worried about my parents in Sebring.”
She has since moved back and works at the Sebring Fire Department, but thoughts of that day give her goosebumps “from head to toe.”
“That day will just never disappear,” she said.
Her children, ages 17 and 15, have never experienced anything like this in their lives yet, and she hopes they won’t.
Scott Dressel, public information officer for the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, was a sports reporter with the News-Sun (now Highlands News-Sun) and at home because he worked at night.
He received a call about the attacks, turned the TV on in time to see the North Tower collapse and came in to write stories about it.
“I don’t think the impact set in right away,” Dressel said.
His wife and in-laws were in the Panhandle for a funeral. Older men there had tears in their eyes.
“This is war,” they told Dressel’s wife.
Lake Placid Police Capt. Mark Schneider said he’s the only member of his department who was with LPPD that day.
He knew it was an attack from the first plane, he said.
“You don’t run into the World Trade Center in an airplane,” Schneider said. “There are too many fail-safes. That’s not an accident.”
He wondered if he would get recalled to the U.S. Navy. He was a quartermaster third-class on the submarine USS William B. Yates (SSN 680) in the Pacific, operating out of Pearl Harbor.
He said the Japanese sneak attack that brought the United States into World War II is fresh there.
“You can still see the bullet holes in some of the buildings from the attack,” Schneider said.
He felt angry at the 2001 sneak attack, especially on civilians.
“When in the military and fighting wars, we fight other combatants,” Schneider said. “This was very cowardly, at the same scale as a sneak attack.”
Tim Eures, then Highlands County emergency operations director, remembers being at the Board of County Commission meeting to discuss renovations to Highlands Park Fire Station 33.
After the first plane hit, then-emergency manager Bill Nichols called in all emergency response administration to monitor and log intel.
After the second plane hit, Nichols requested that the Emergency Operations Center partially activate and held a briefing with key county officials.
It was like any big crisis, Eures said: Calling family for reassurance, staring at the television, disseminating information and gearing up for response mode.
“Unfortunately, for many in public safety, the time to reflect would come months later,” Eures said.
David Flowers, now Avon Park city manager, was chairman of the county commission, getting ready to start a meeting. Lisa Burley, the county’s public information officer at the time, whispered to him about the first tower being hit by a plane.
He thought she meant the Sheraton towers in Orlando. It wasn’t until she told him of the second tower that he asked for clarification.
Commissioners sped through the meeting and then 30-40 people spent two hours watching the attack unfold on the lobby television.
“It was awful. Absolutely awful,” Flowers said. “I could not believe it. Still to this day.”
Flowers said nothing in his 10 years as a deputy prepared him for that day, as defining as the John F. Kennedy assassination was when he was a child.
Flowers’ youngest daughter joined the U.S. Army Military Police and served a year-long tour in Kirkuk, Iraq, inspired to make a difference.
Flowers said he gained a larger sense of patriotism, stronger faith and became a better citizen.
Gloria Rybinski, the county’s current public information officer, worked for a payroll company in Lake Placid in 2001. She heard about the attack via radio on her commute to work, and learned more from a television at the office next door.
A year later, she was working for the county, helping get information out on disasters and other incidents.
“Seeing the coverage did give me that inspiration, wanting to do something,” Rybinski said.
Bashoor said some improvements since then include communications. New York police in helicopters that day could see the steel columns glowing, and put that information out via radio, but fire crews’ radios were incompatible, and crews climbing up inside the towers never heard that.
Now, fire and police personnel can talk over radios with a flip of a switch, he said.
Social media both helps and hinders, Bashoor said. People can mark themselves safe and can follow what’s happening instantly, but while instant posts may help alert emergency personnel to situations, posts that are incorrect or alarmist could create panic or send people toward danger, not away from it.
Another change is how people are affected. Schneider remembers people stopping what they were doing and waving flags on roadsides to raise morale.
“I believe, as a society, we’re forgetting what happened there,” Schneider said of most people, and new recruits. “They approach (crises) the way they’re supposed to, the way they’re trained to.”
What matters most is how well they will react to something when it happens, he said.