Do You Remember? - Local Firefighter Reflects on Time at Ground Zero

Donna England

The Ashland Beacon


   It started out like any other day for millions of Americans. Parents rushing to get their children off to school. People weaving in and out of traffic to get to work and some returning home after working the graveyard shift.

   Airport terminals were busy with people boarding morning flights never giving it a second thought. Little did some know they would never land at their destination.

   There was a feeling of security and safety that allowed people to go about their daily lives untouched, unharmed until…

   At 8:46 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001, a plane barreled into the World Trade Center and America changed in an instant.

   For those who remember the horrifying images streaming across television screens throughout the world, it was a moment of disbelief, shock… how could this be happening? Is this even real? Not since Pearl Harbor had the United States of America witnessed such an extreme attack on its own soil. But this was different. This was not an attack on a military target; it was an attack on civilians… on humanity itself.

   As a nation, we watched in horror as the blinding smoke seeped out of the twin towers, one of American’s greatest engineering achievements. People stood speechless, many unable to express any emotion or thought, some bursting into tears, others praying… and then it happened live across television airwaves.

   Another plane came crashing into the second tower as we all gasped; then the Pentagon was hit, followed by more reports of yet another crashed plane. How many more will there be? How many more attacks, and where will they strike next? We later learned the fourth and final crashed airliner was taken down by brave U.S. citizens who would rather die in the fields of Pennsylvania than to have their plane used as a bomb on another target.

   The shock lingered for days, followed by anger…people wanting, demanding answers. Who could commit such an evil act of mass violence against not just American citizens, but innocent people from across the globe? What kind of monsters are these people?

   For one local first responder, September 11, 2001, was forever life-changing, and the impact of that day and the days following will haunt him till the day he dies. Nick Dickens, an 18-year veteran as a fire engineer with the Flatwoods Fire Department, doesn’t like to talk about what he witnessed as a first responder.

  “It’s a subject I don’t like to talk about other than with those who were with me at Ground Zero,” he hesitantly said in a sit-down interview with The Greater Ashland Beacon.

   Like millions of other Americans, it was just another average morning for Dickens when his sister came in and woke him up. “She came in yelling, ‘Get up. A plane just attacked the World Trade Center!’ I told her she was nuts and laughed,” he recalled. “I thought she was joking. No plane would ever attack the World Trade Center. That just wasn’t possible.”

   But because of her insistence, Dickens got up and went to the living room, arriving just in time to witness a second plane crashing into the second tower. “I couldn’t believe what I just saw. My first thought was, we are under attack.”

   Dickens’ next thought was to immediately report to the fire station. “I knew it was a big event and that is what first responders do, is gather at the fire department when something big or tragic happens.” He added he has been gone from the fire department in an official capacity since 2016 but, “I still go there when something bad happens. I guess you would call it my safe space.”

   When he arrived, fellow firefighter and communications director at the time, Buford Hurley and Danny Slaughter were already there and “we were all a little nervous about what was going on.” Like many Americans, Dickens and his fellow first responders had concerns about more attacks happening and where they would happen. But foremost in their minds was a feeling of how they might help the victims in New York.

   “Danny was a member of the Red Cross, and we knew the Red Cross would be activated, so he took me down to Greenup to sign up as a volunteer,” Dickens said. “They told us it would be a couple of weeks before we would be doing anything, and we knew it was more urgent than that and couldn’t wait.” Later that afternoon Dickens joined a group of local first responders, “mostly EMS” and headed to Ground Zero in New York City.

   “We were still well into New Jersey when we saw it, for miles and miles all you could see was huge amounts of smoke filling the sky,” Dickens said. Arriving at about 7 a.m. Sept. 12, the local group arrived at their check point. They were then dispatched to Liberty State Park, where “there were first responders from all over the country.”

   “It was chaos, people everywhere. Communications between NY and NJ were bad, but we got our first assignment. We were to set up a field hospital in a former train station. We were expecting to get over 500 wounded, but we never saw anyone.” Dickens again attributed it to a lack of communication and the chaos that ensured in the first 24 hours.

   On their second day, they were sent to Ground Zero. This site of the mountains of smoking rubble, and the FDNY frantically digging to find survivors and their fellow fallen first responders, many trapped inside as the steel beams came crashing to the ground. Dickens went on to describe lower Manhattan, “Everyone had been pretty much evacuated, but I just felt a sense of urgency since at that point we didn’t know if there were still survivors,” he said.

   He continued to describe that when first responders arrive at such tragic events or any other emergency, there is no time to think about the emotional impact. “In a situation like that, you don’t stop and think about the deaths because you are so focused on doing the job.”

   Dickens described long lines of bucket brigades as first responders removed the rubble bucket by bucket passing it down the line. “I remember all of those five-gallon buckets, there was tons of them, pallets and pallets of them.” He also recalls the toll that began to take place after a couple of days. “About three days into the digging, that is when the emotional toll started sinking in… the smell of death and the number of people who had died.”

   Dickens said they never found intact bodies, but just parts. “Every single one, no matter how small, was put in a body bag and draped with an American flag. It was important to respect those who had died. There was a lot of loss of life and that realization starts messing with you after a while.”

   Day after day of digging and finding no survivors took its toll on rescue workers, especially for those from the FDNY. “They didn’t just lose co-workers,” Dickens said. “For them, it was like losing their entire family. Station Ten lost every member.” But it was that sense of brotherly bonding, love that kept the brotherhood going and one thing Dickens recalls as being the most memorable thing about his experience.

   Dickens said at the lowest point of morale and a feeling of being beaten down, President Bush arrived and made the memorable speech over the bull horn while standing on top of the rubble.

   “President Bush gave us hope. Before everyone was beat down and tired, especially the FDNY, who refused to leave because their brothers were in that pile, it was like drinking a high caffeine energy drink when the President gave that speech. Very uplifting and motivating. He breathed new life into all of us. You could probably hear us cheering and yelling all the way into New Jersey,” he said.

   Dickens’ biggest regret was having to leave so soon due to some in their group having to get back home to work. “I would have stayed until the last stone was removed. A few of us felt that way.”

   Although he wished 9/11 never happened, Dickens said he would do it again if needed. Luckily, he doesn’t suffer from the many medical ailments that others at Ground Zero have succumbed, but the emotional scar that it left is a battle.

   “I still can’t watch any old videos, news, or any of the movies that have been made. September 11 is always the hardest, but I try to make it just another day to block out the memories,” Dickens said. But for him, it is important that as a nation of people that we never forget.

   “I think Americans have forgotten, and a lot sooner than Pearl Harbor. For three or five years there was all these big 9/11 tributes, ceremonies and overnight it just stopped. I wish we could get back to the country we were on September 12, too. Then it was ‘you’re an American, I am an American and I love you.’ None of this fighting crap we are seeing now.”

   Dickens returned to ground zero with his wife in June of this year. It wasn’t the memorial that evoked the most emotion, but the old train station where they first arrived. “That train station is now a ferry station that takes you out to the Statue of Liberty. I can’t explain why, but being there was very emotional for me… more so than at Ground Zero.”

   Regardless of our individual views about 9/11, one thing we should always remember are the words of Dickens.

   “Remember September 12, when we were all Americans; not a democrat, republican, not a liberal or conservative, but just simply American and we loved one another. Let us remember that for generations to come.”