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First posted in LDN 09/10/2011
Lincoln Fire Chief Mark Miller remembers 9/11

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[September 11, 2014]  Across the United States, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, had a profound effect on the American people. It was a tragedy so horrible, a crime so heinous that it was almost impossible to believe.

The day began with a single American Airlines passenger plane diving into the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Soon after, a second plane would follow suit into the south tower. The complete destruction of those towers and surroundings in the city, plus the loss of life, was overwhelming.

But as the morning passed, Americans would learn that it had been only one target in a multifaceted assault on this country. As news came that the Pentagon had been similarly hit and that another plane on an additional mission had failed due to the heroic measures of the passengers, this country -- the entire world -- sat in stunned silence, but only for a moment.

America was not paralyzed as terrorists had hoped it would be. Instead it was unified and mobilized into action as across the country, those who could went to the aid of those who were lost or hurting, and those who could not went to their knees and prayed.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Mark Miller was an assistant chief with the Lincoln Fire Department and an instructor at Richland Community College, training young adults to become firefighters.

On that particular day, he wasn't on duty, nor was he teaching. He was at home, enjoying a day off, when the phone rang early in the morning.

"It was my father-in-law. He said, 'Something's going on in New York. You need to turn on your TV.'"

The call came early in the event, and like millions of other Americans, Miller was in front of the television when the second plane hit the south tower. He remembers that he watched in shock and in awe of the scene.

He also remembered a class he'd taken as a firefighter when the topic of the World Trade Center came up. In that class the instructor had told his students that the World Trade Center was built to stand. No one ever expected that the towers would collapse the way they did.

As the day progressed, news continued to come forward about the events taking place in the East. The attack on the Pentagon, the crash of a flight in Pennsylvania -- it was all being talked about as quickly as reporters could organize the information.

As the day progressed, television crews moved in closer to the scene in New York, and from there comes the indelible memory that Miller will carry with him for the rest of his life.

It wasn't a picture, or a reporter, but rather a sound. A sound that only a trained firefighter would understand the significance of.

Incorporated into the breathing apparatus that firefighters wear inside burning buildings, there is an alarm system called a PASS alarm, meaning a Personal Alert Safety System. The PASS contains a motion sensor that will sound a distinctive alarm when a firefighter stops moving for a period of 15 to 30 seconds.

When a firefighter is in trouble, the alarm will sound, giving fellow firefighters the opportunity to locate the fallen and offer help as needed.

Miller on the day of Sept. 11 watched the television. As camera crews moved closer and closer, "I could hear the alarms," he said, then paused only for a second, "and I knew, men were down."

In any fire, there is a possibility of firefighters getting lost or confused about where they are. Buildings on fire are obviously filled with smoke. Items that should look familiar become alien objects as firefighters try to get through a burning building.

Miller said he could imagine the amount of confusion that occurred when the towers began to crumble. With so many firefighters and civilians still inside, it would have been chaos, and the urgency to find not only innocent civilians but also fallen firefighters would have been overwhelming.

As Miller talked this week about his memories of 9/11, he talked about the special kinship between firefighters. There is a sense of family that exceeds geography.

He emphasized that thousands of lives were lost on Sept. 11, and no one wants to diminish that fact in any way, but for firefighters across America, they took this attack very personally.

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"When people are overseas in the military, they expect that they will be attacked. Here in America, I don't think anyone ever expected that our first responders would be part of such an attack. I think that is why we (firefighters) claim this as ours," Miller said.

In New York City, 343 firefighters died on Sept. 11. In addition, there were thousands of innocent people who were doing nothing more than trying to go about their ordinary lives. There were also police officers and emergency medical technicians who gave more than they should have had to -- their lives -- at the hands of terrorists who wanted nothing more than to kill Americans in quantity.

Around the nation, in the days following Sept. 11, firefighters made their way to New York. They went to help with the cleanup, to try to fill gaps in departments left by lost souls, and to be there as an act of solidarity for the departments and the families of those who perished.

Hundreds of firefighters, including several from Lincoln and Logan County, also traveled to New York for memorial services.

Miller wasn't able to go for the memorials, but three months after the attacks he and a good friend and fellow firefighter from Decatur, Toby Jackson, drove to New York and spent a week with their comrades.

They were assigned to work in the lower Manhattan area, which was close to ground zero. They spent time with Engine 23, stationed right off of Central Park, and they spent time with Rescue 1 in the same vicinity.

Miller remembers going to ground zero.

"We went to the site and it was just dirt and debris. There were trucks hauling away the debris, and it was just truck after truck after truck. The streets were torn up, buildings around the area were damaged. It was like an earthquake."


Miller also recalled that as they went from area to area, there didn't seem to be very many firefighters who were willing to talk about what had happened. The reason for that, he believes, is because for a large majority of those who did survive, it was because they were not on duty that day and not standing with their fellow firefighters when tragedy struck.

While he was in New York, Miller took a special helmet with him and collected signatures from various units. In an accompanying story, he talks about the helmet and the good it did for the family of a local firefighter.

When tragedy strikes, regardless of its form, for most of us to go on with any kind of normalcy, we have to be able to find a good that comes out of it.

Miller said he felt like the Lincoln Fire Department found that good, because it made them all more aware of the risks they take when they respond to a fire. It brought the department together, making their bond stronger and reminding them to always look out for each other.

In the story of the 9/11 helmet, you'll see firsthand an example of that bond and that selflessness in the local department.

How a special post-9/11 helmet memorializes a local firefighter

[Copied from LDN archives 09/10/2011]

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