On this 20th Anniversary of the September 11 attacks, we remember...
As stated by Cheltenham Township Emergency Management Coordinator Ken Hellendall, “September 11, 2001, is our generation’s ‘Day that will live in infamy’.” As the 20th anniversary approaches, Ken, Chief of Police John Frye, and Commissioner Mitch Zygmund-Felt spoke of their memories from that day.
John was a patrolman here in 2001 and recalls that on September 11, he was assigned to the police pistol range as an instructor for training. “It was a beautiful crisp morning and the training was just about to start when my wife called to tell me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. While she was still on the phone, the second plane crashed into the second tower, and it was then obvious to me that our country was under attack.”
Commissioner Zygmund-Felt had been working in New York City at the time, and arrived at his office a short time after 9:00am to an empty reception and anxious, tear-filled faces scattered throughout the halls. It was then that he learned something horrendous was underway. Within an hour, Mitch organized a group of volunteers to donate blood and headed to Mt. Sinai Beth Israel Hospital, 20 blocks away, expecting massive numbers of casualties. Mitch said, “There were so many people with the same idea, they took contact information and committed to calling us if they needed more donations. It was NYC in crisis mode!” As a Senior Executive, Mitch was responsible for helping to get employees safely out of the city as soon as possible, which meant people had to walk long distances to find public transportation still running. Fire trucks, police, and emergency vehicles sped toward the Twin Towers, and doctors and nurses flooded into the ERs, expecting to act in rescue mode.
Back in Pennsylvania, Cheltenham Police had immediately cancelled the firearms training and responded back to the Police Station. Chief Frye remembers everyone gathered around the television in disbelief and shock. “I remember a feeling of helplessness watching all of the people running from the site and my fellow first responders rushing towards the buildings, wishing that there was some way that I could help them.” At that point, the only thing that Cheltenham Police could do was begin to identify potential targets in the Township and increase patrols in all of those areas, while closely following the situation in New York.
Like Mitch, John, and Ken, most of us remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news. Some in our Township may have had relatives or friends in New York, Washington, DC, or on Flight 93 that went down in Pennsylvania. Others may have gone to the site in subsequent days to volunteer, or raised funds for those affected by the devastation. But all of our lives were impacted by the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks.
About five days after the 11th, Ken was summoned to New York City by the fleet manager of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). For a full day, volunteers restocked FDNY fire trucks that had been slated for auction to replace the 84 pieces of apparatus that were destroyed. What could not be replaced were the 343 firefighters, 72 law enforcement officers, 8 EMS personnel, 55 armed forces, and 2,499 civilians lost on that horrible day.
The group of volunteers with Ken worked for about 18 hours putting hose and equipment back on very old fire trucks, and putting masking tape with a number written on it on the side of the trucks to identify them. Mitch recalls walking to within a block of Ground Zero a week or so after the attacks: “I watched the amazing body of volunteers, local and from far and wide, working the site for recovery. That was, and should be, the America we experience in challenging times. Ken and John are two who deeply understand and are committed to those values.”
In New York, Ken worked next to a very quiet retired FDNY Lieutenant. They said their goodbyes when Ken was to return to Cheltenham, and Ken learned later that he’d been quiet because he knew his son, also an FDNY Firefighter, was at the World Trade Center. The lieutenant’s son did not survive that day. Ken says, “When I returned home that night, I was sitting on the couch in my living room crying. My son (who was 9 at the time) asked me if I knew any of the firefighters who had died, and I said no. He then asked why I was crying if I didn’t know them. I answered, ‘Because firefighting is a brotherhood.’”
As we reflect on this somber occasion, remembering the tragic events of 20 years ago, we reflect also on our country, remembering the overwhelming feeling of unity in the following days and months. Chief Frye states, “After the terrorist attack, all people came together and helped each other. I think one of the ways that we can honor the memory of those lost is to work towards regaining that feeling of unity and support for one another that we had following the attack.”