By Laura McAlister
Like most Americans, it doesn’t take Chip Cousins long to remember what he was doing Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the U.S.
The Vestavia Hills firefighter and chaplain spent much of that day glued to the television watching the events unfold.
“I remember seeing the second plane hit the World Trade Center. I said, ‘Boys, we just went to war.'” he said. “It was a pretty sobering day with lots of things happening pretty quickly.”
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the attacks. To remember those who lost their lives that day, as well as the many rescue workers who risked theirs, the fire and police departments of Vestavia Hills, Mountain Brook and Homewood will come together Sept. 11 for a remembrance ceremony.
If there’s one good thing to remember about the tragic attacks, it’s the bravery of rescue workers who helped those in need, Chip said.
Chip was one of many firefighters who decided he needed to help. He traveled to Ground Zero about a month after the attacks, but his help was still much needed. Search and recovery would continue at Ground Zero for months, as would the cleanup.
The psychological impact would also be lasting, which is where Chip figured he could be of use.
Chip arrived in New York City Oct. 17 with a friend and fellow chaplain. He provided counseling to relief workers, mainly firefighters.
“It was profoundly sad,” he said. “It was unbelievable to think people had been working for over a month and the pile was still 80 feet tall. People were angry. They were disillusioned.
“They just still couldn’t believe what had happened and what they were dealing with. That’s part of the reason we had to go up there.”
Chip stayed in New York for one week, working nights. During that time, he said, bodies were still being recovered from the rubble that was once the World Trade Center.
“We’d be working, and you’d hear the equipment and water spraying,” he said. “Then all of the sudden it’d just get really quite. Then you’d notice a group of about six men walking out with a basket with an American flag draped over it.”
Even though it’s been 10 years, Chip said he still can’t understand why civilians were targeted on that day.
“For lack of a better term, it’s just a kick in the gut that they would choose to pick on innocent civilians just to make a point,” he said. “It’s still unbelievable that civilians were subjected to that for any other reason than they were just Americans.”
Nearly 3,000 died during the Sept. 11 attacks. Of those, about 340 were firefighters.
VHFD Chief Jim St. John said the remembrance ceremony will honor those who lost their lives 10 years ago on Sept. 11 as well as the many others who died serving the country since then in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“This really started as a group of firefighters joining together, and then the police would join us,” he said. “So about six years ago, we decided to just observe the day together.”
This year, Vestavia is the host city. The event will be at the flagpole in front of Vestavia Hills High School beginning at 8:45 a.m., about the same time the first plane struck the World Trade Center.
The names of each of the cities’ employees serving in the armed forces will be recited, with special attention given to those currently serving overseas, Jim said. The featured speaker will be Commander Joseph S. Honea with the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve and retired fire marshal for the city of Hoover.
“This is really just a time to remember all the public safety workers, and the ordinary citizens, who stood up to do something unimaginable on Sept. 11,” Jim said. “This time also really establishes a great connection between public safety and the armed forces.
“Public safety responded on Sept. 11 to handle the crisis, and the armed forces stepped in to manage the consequences and to ensure we wouldn’t experience that again. They’ve been 100 percent effective the past 10 years, too.”
Though much has changed since the terrorists attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Jim said firefighters and public safety workers remain a closely knit family. Before, workers in the same communities and departments were close, but the attacks enlarged that family.
“I don’t even know how to describe the pain of those departments in New York and around the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa.,” he said. “We had people like Chip who responded. We had people who went out there.
“It works both ways. Those firefighters that we were helping after Sept. 11 were the same ones sending us gear down here in Alabama after the April 27 tornados.
“Firefighters live in a brotherhood. We’re brothers and sisters, and we’re trained to act when it’s time.”