By LINDSAY OLIVIER
NORTH KINGSTOWN – While hundreds of New York City firefighters risked their lives and died helping others on Sept. 11, a group of six men were in the middle of a 16-week academy for the North Kingstown Fire Department and, reflecting on that day 10 years later, they all remember being in awe of what was happening just a few hundred miles away.
The recruits were Pvt. Mike Gledhill, Pvt. Christian Anderson, Pvt. Christopher Beattie and Lt. Steve St. Pierre. Two have since moved to other departments in the state; Pvt. Christopher Corson is now with the Cranston Fire Department and Pvt. Joe Smeals is with the West Warwick Fire Department.
The morning of Sept. 11, the recruits were doing driver’s training on various fire apparatus in the parking lot of NORAD in Quonset.
“There was a small school bus that we used to hang out in. I can’t remember if we all were in there or just one person,” Gledhill said. “But we had the radio on for music when it came across that the first tower was hit. When the first plane hit I thought what a tragic accident, but then the second tower was hit, I knew right then, something bad was happening.”
He described everyone huddling around the radio in shock and feeling uneasy. Soon after the towers fell, the recruits began hearing that departments from around the state were beginning to send firefighters and police officers to Ground Zero to assist.
“Unfortunately, we couldn’t go,” Gledhill said. “But years after, I know of firefighters from Rhode Island that actually left to become New York City fire fighters. I think before 9/11, no one could relate to what firefighters did, but it was that day, that this career, as well as the police career, was looked at in another light.”
St. Pierre can’t believe that it’s already been 10 years.
“It’s gone by incredibly fast,” he said.
St. Pierre remembers doing driver’s training on Brush 3 with Beattie when one of the instructors called them over to the training bus and told them to shut down the truck.
“By the time we got over to the bus, everyone was sitting around and we were told our nation was under attack but at that time no one knew the extent of the attacks. I remember that the instructors pretty much cancelled training for the day because they knew that no one would be able to focus,” said St. Pierre.
He also remembered feeling an urgent need to call home to make sure his family was OK, especially since no one knew what the extent of the attacks were and whether or not people were safe in Rhode Island.
“It was a valid concern at the time and quite frightening,” he added.
After ending training early, the recruit class went back to the former department of training building on Belver Avenue in Quonset and watched the national broadcasts of the attacks. As they were watching images and video on the news, many remember former fire Chief Patrick Campion, “visibly shaken” just knowing how many firefighters were in the buildings.
Having only been in the academy for six weeks, St. Pierre had mixed feelings about what those firefighters were experiencing.
“It’s tough to explain,” he said. “I remember the incredible sorrow I felt for the firefighters and what their families were likely going through, as well as civilians. But I also felt a great sense of pride for entering this profession.”
St. Pierre is stationed on Engine 6 out of Station 3 that responds to Quonset which includes the airport, port, Rhode Island National Guard premises and the rail line. As a lieutenant, he acknowledged that responding to a domestic terrorism incident is something he always thinks about and needs to be prepared for and able to recognizance right away.
“Unlike being a private, I now have the responsibility of insuring the safety of my crew, “ he explained. “So I need to be thinking that a relatively simple incident, like a small release of a hazardous material on a cargo ship, could actually be an act of terrorism. With that, I need to be cognizant that there could potentially be secondary devices that could kill or injure me and, more importantly, my crew or other fire ighters or civilians.”
Beattie, who’s also on Engine 6, agreed with St. Pierre in that as a firefighter in this day in age, everyone needs to make sure they’re prepared for such an event.
“You always have to be aware of high hazard areas, especially in Quonset,” he said.
“I’d be lying if I said 9/11 didn’t change the way we do things, but, for me, it’s hasn’t changed the way I do my job completely.”
When Anderson heard the news, the first thing he thought was “it’s daytime, how did the plane not see the building. What was air traffic control doing?”
“No one was thinking terrorism,” he said. “It wasn’t until later that we began to hear how many firefighters had died.”
But even though 9/11 has changed the way firefighters and emergency personnel handle situations, Anderson hasn’t allowed it to change the way he handles his responcibilities.
“I think it has to do with where certain firefighters work,” he said. “I consider North Kingstown a low risk area so I’m concentrated on making sure I’m doing my day-to-day duties to the best of my ability.”
Now, 10 years later, the North Kingstown Fire Department has increased training on terrorism and hazardous material responses.
And those men who were just recruits the day it all changed? None of them regret the decision they made to become firefighters.
“We chose this career because we wanted to help people,” Anderson said. “And nothing will change that.”