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First responders in Central Texas reflect on how 9/11 changed public’s perception of their work

Published: Sep. 10, 2021 at 6:21 PM CDT
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(KWTX) - Most firefighters in Central Texas did not respond to New York City after the attacks on September 11, 2001, but many serving the community at the time say it was a day a lot of things changed, from the public’s perception of what they did, to the way they fought fires and responded to calls.

Some who were working in the area 20 years ago are still on the front lines in Central Texas today, like Mike Puig, now a lieutenant with Waco Fire and Garry Grant, now a lieutenant with Bellmead Fire.

“I was working for the City of Bellmead at the time and had got off work that morning and was actually going fishing,” Puig said.

I had just gotten off I had worked the shift before. Went home that morning and went to bed as most firefighter do after a shift,” Grant remembered. “I went home and climbed into bed and a few hours later my wife called and asked if I was watched TV. By the time I turned on the tube, they had showed the replay of the first plane that hit and then they switched to live and that’s when the second plane hit.”

“It was just totally different that day and it’s just a day I’ll never forget,” Grant said.

Morgan’s Point Fire Chief Taran Vaszocz-Williams was just beginning his career as a first responder at the time.

“I had just completed my first EMT class. I was traveling to Mexico working as a volunteer EMT waiting for my certification in the United States,” Vaszocz said.

Morgan's Point Fire Chief Taran Vaszocz-Williams
Morgan's Point Fire Chief Taran Vaszocz-Williams(Courtesy Photo)

Puig says there’s a distinct difference between being a firefighter before 9/11 and being one after.

“I was watching the country unite around this cause. That is when I believe the country decided that firemen are good,” Puig said.

“I think a lot of guys that day wanted to become a firefighter. Everyone started looking at a firefighter as their best friend, their hero. The respect level went up greatly when they realized what we do and how we do it,” Grant said.

Before 9/11, he says, firefighters were often out of site and out of mind until they were needed.

After September 11th, however, he says the community around them started to value their presence thanks to the countless firefighters who responded to ground zero in New York City.

“They were running the opposite direction that other people were running from and you kind of knew the fate that would happen to them,” said Killeen Police Chief Charles Kimble.

“They didn’t even think about what could happen or what might happen, or the consequences, they just went straight to it and did the job the best they could,” Morgan’s Point Resort firefighter Addison Buckner said.

The men responding to ground zero were every day firefighters with the same titles as those here in Texas, but those in New York turned into heroes in an instant.

“We were small town Waco at the time. I didn’t feel like that thing could happen here, but it opened our eyes that tragedy can hit anywhere,” Puig explained.

Firefighters in New York saved countless lives and, tragically, 343 FDNY members never made it home.

“The second that I saw and processed everything [that day], I knew that firefighters were going to die,” Killeen Fire Chief James Kubinski said in a video released by the city.

“It brought to light that we might not go home one day. I don’t know that we want to think of that but it just brings that to mind,” Puig said.

“One of the biggest takeaways from the day for me, all these years later, is that you always say ‘I love you’ and you never leave the house on bad terms,” Vaszocz said.

After the attacks, they said the way they did their jobs started to change too.

“The security of the nation changed. The way we fought fires changed. We don’t just rush in. It’s more strategically done now,” Grant explained.

“A lot of different ways that we approach security and approach scenes in one way or another ties back to what happened there,” Vaszocz said.

The way crews communicate at the scene of a fire changed in the years after 2001, and they say it’s more manageable now.

“One of the things that hindered them in New York was lack of radio function and that was brought to light and lots of money has been given out to improve those conditions,” Puig recalled.

And even though Central Texas isn’t home to many sky scrapers, they say learning how to respond to a fire is now a regular part of training, just in case.

“We look at other peoples ways of dealing with high rise fires and there’s a lot of lessons learned with that with evacuation or whether or not we use elevators,” Vaszocz explained.

They are lessons for their younger counterparts, newer to the department, and some not old enough to remember the attacks.

“It’s interesting to me to see applications come across my desk and see the birth date say 2001 or 2002,” Chief Vaszocz said.

Buckner was five years old in September of 2001. He says he watched the events unfold on TV at home. He remembers his uncle, a Belton Firefighter, calling his mother and telling her to put it on.

“I was running around in a little fire coat and fire hat even then. I wanted to go help do something. I couldn’t then but that’s how I ended up [being a firefighter],” Buckner recalled.

Buckner as a child
Buckner as a child(Courtesy Photo)

Morgan’s Point firefighter Chuck Maines is 21-years-old and doesn’t remember September 11th, but says growing up in South Jersey, he had two relatives working as first responders who were sent to NYC in the days following the attacks.

He says his mom saved the newspapers from September 11, 12 and 13th and he’s always had an interest in learning more about what happened that day.

Growing up, he says he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, until a visit to NYC when he was around 16-years-old.

“I went to the ground zero memorial and it’s one of the most eerie places I’ve ever been. Right there showed me that this is where you belong this is what you’re here to do,” Maines said.

He went on to join the service and is stationed at Fort Hood. He joined MPRFD just a few months ago as well.

Chief Vaszocz says they get a lot of guys in the army on their department being so close to Fort Hood.

Because of that, he says 9/11 and what it meant for the country and our service members is especially real for them.

“We’re still involved in all the things that came from 9/11 all the things that caused 9/11 and we see that in a special way especially being here in Central Texas. We have a lot of guys that serve active duty military and some guys that just got out,” Vaszocz said.

They currently have a member deployed overseas.

“His helmet is right above me and our guys are wearing cards on their helmets he just deployed from Fort Hood and just went to Kuwait, so its very real for us,” Vaszocz explained.

Both young and seasoned they work alongside each other on the front lines, remembering even 20-years-later.

Bell County fire departments will come together on the 20th anniversary for a stair climb at Wildcat Stadium in Temple Saturday morning.

“Physical part aside, its like going back to sacred ground for a lot of us emotionally. It brings it back to an individual level, its just you and the stairs one step at a time thinking about what it means for so many families and the number of people who were impacted by 9/11,” Vaszocz said.

“[The anniversary] just makes you appreciate what [First Responders/Service Members] go through just to make sure that we as citizens are taken care of,” Killeen Mayor Segarra said. “They are truly all of our heroes.”

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