340 firefighters

September 9, 2016 • Posted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing, Uncategorized by

When Prince died in April, I asked the older adults in the memoir classes I lead to write about someone they didn’t know personally whose death made them really, really sad. Mel Washburn spent years as a dedicated firefighter before receiving his J.D. from the University of Wisconsin. I was very moved by his essay, and he generously agreed to let me share it here with Safe & Sound blog readers on the 15th anniversary of 911.

Memoir: Mourning someone I didn’t know

by Mel Washburn

Twenty years ago, the deaths of my parents left me with a hollow feeling that lasted for years. And nowadays the death of a friend makes me sad for weeks, whether we just met recently or we were friends from long ago.

But the death of a celebrity, such as Princess Diana or the pop singer Prince, hardly affects me at all. I didn’t know that celebrity. We had no personal connection of any sort. I can open the newspaper any day of the week and read the obituary of some ordinary person whose life story has more meaning for me than that of the Princess or the Prince.

NY Times, September 23, 2001

NY Times, September 23, 2001, with photos of first responders who lost their lives.

Only once has the intersection of celebrity and personal tragedy really affected me — this was the death of 340 New York firefighters in the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

Before they died, they were just ordinary men with ordinary jobs. When they died, however, they became celebrities. For months after their deaths, the media published their photographs, reported on their funerals, interviewed their friends and families, and talked about the circumstances of their deaths.

All through October and November and December, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Their photographs, in particular, fascinated me. The New York Times published page after page of them in columns and rows, little one-by-three pictures of their heads and shoulders, each of them in uniform, usually wearing their uniform caps. They were young or middle-aged. Most of them were trim, but some were heavy-set. A lot of them wore the mustache that, for many firemen, is like a part of the uniform. They looked like the guys I used to work with when I was a fireman.

On September 11, the first airplane struck the towers at the time when the firemen were changing shift. Many of the men who had been going off duty put on their turnout gear and climbed onto the rigs to ride to the scene with the on-duty shift. They had no idea what they were getting into.

Fires in high-rise buildings are usually contained to one floor. If people die, it’s usually from smoke inhalation. It’s usually not firemen, who are trained and equipped to deal with heavy smoke. And high-rise buildings don’t fall down. When firemen die in a collapsing building, that building is usually two or three stories tall.

These guys didn’t expect to die on 9/11. They expected to climb a lot of stairs and rescue some civilians and maybe, at worst, fight a really nasty fire in really greasy black smoke. They didn’t think it would be easy, but they thought it wouldn’t be much different from fires they’d fought before.

Fate played a really dirty trick on those guys. To this day, I feel sad and hollow when I think of them. I’ve never felt this way about any other public event. I probably never will.

Marilee On September 9, 2016 at 7:25 am

We will never forget. A beautifully written remembrance. Thank you Mel.

bethfinke On September 9, 2016 at 9:25 am

I have Mel to thank, too. Until he read that essay last Spring, I had no idea the NY Times published the firefighter’s photos like that in the paper: “page after page of them in columns and rows.” Little wonder that Mel was so moved by those images.

Now, thanks to his descriptions of the photos in this essay, I am moved by those images — and the NYTimes decision to publish them like that — as well.


Sharon Dardy On September 9, 2016 at 9:38 am

These extraordinary men were heroes to us all. They cared enough to worry about other people, and in the end they gave their lives with dignity. These men will always live on in our thoughts, prayers, and minds.

bethfinke On September 9, 2016 at 10:40 am



Mel Theobald On September 9, 2016 at 1:11 pm

Thank you Mel Washburn for reminding us of the significance of that terrifying day all those heroes sacrificed their lives to save others. I like millions around the world sat glued to my TV for days. Having seen the first report on Bloomberg, then the second plane live on CBS, I called my office and told everyone to go home. There would be no business for days to come. Six months later I was in NY with my daughter who insisted that we visit the site of ground zero. By then it was a tidy massive hole of swept concrete. Through some accidental turn we ended up at a private memorial where the personal letters of family, badges of firefighters and police volunteers, and faith offerings sat on a shelf near the American flag. Although we will never forget that day, it is still important that people share their memories to make sure.

bethfinke On September 9, 2016 at 11:02 pm

Thanks for this. Must be something about the name Mel. You both have a gift for expressing yourselves in writing. _____

nbollero On September 10, 2016 at 11:01 am

beautifully done, Mel. thanks. So hard to believe it has been 15 years.

bethfinke On September 10, 2016 at 11:25 am

You know, I was surprised to do the math and realize it has been 15 years already. I do notice when I visit schools sometimes and the kids refer to 911 as something their parents told them about. The children weren’t alive when it happened.


Janet On September 12, 2016 at 10:50 pm

When they printed the photos of all of the fire fighters, and first responders, it did remind me of seeing soldiers photos. Respected, and very much heros. I hope people in my generation see it that way. We still have heros.

bethfinke On September 13, 2016 at 5:44 pm

Amen. _____

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