Plattsburgh (NY) Fire Chief Remembers 9/11 Response

Fernando Alba

The Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, N.Y.


Sep. 11—PLATTSBURGH — Twenty years after assisting first responders in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks at Ground Zero, Scott Lawliss remembers the rubble, the debris and the dust.

Lawliss, now fire chief of the City of Plattsburgh Fire Department, had visited New York City several times before. When he returned to the city just days after two hijacked commercial airliners flew into the World Trade Center’s north and south towers, Lawliss said he had come back to a warzone.

“I don’t know unless you saw the pile or the area to get the magnitude of the work that needed to be done to recover people,” he said. “To see that, it was overwhelming.”

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Lawliss, who had a pilot’s license, said he remembered hearing American Airlines Flight 11 hitting the north tower over the news while working and thought about a scenic route by the lower Hudson River that pilots took. Maybe the collision was an accident.

“But I thought it was odd given the flight conditions of the day and the weather conditions that someone would fly into a building,” Lawliss remembered. “That gave me pause.”

“When the second plane hit, then it was pretty apparent that this was not a random mechanical or medical problem somebody had.”

After both planes struck the twin towers, Lawliss said Plattsburgh’s fire department issued a recall of all off-duty firefighters. He said no one knew at that point many of the details behind the attacks or if there would be more.

Asking for volunteers for a possible deployment to the city, a group, including Lawliss signed up. Volunteers from Plattsburgh drove down in a city ambulance and an additional utility vehicle for medical support.

On the way down, Lawliss said he was anticipating the possibility of recovering people trapped in rubble.

“What became very apparent was that there was no medical needed,” Lawliss said. “They were not finding any survivors or anything like that. We were a second wave; we were there for anybody on the outside perimeter that needed any medical.”

The volunteers were staged just outside a small cathedral. By walking down the street, Lawliss said they could see the pile at Ground Zero.

He found that he and the other volunteers were assisting the firefighters there.

“You could tell they had just got off working on the pile,” Lawliss said, recalling firefighters sitting on a sidewalk by a church’s iron fence. “Their heads were down, covered in dust.”

The firefighters’ chief, whose brother lived in Peru at the time, said there was an issue transporting them to their fire house and that it could be another three hours before they get a ride back to the station.

He asked Lawliss if they could take his crew back to the station

“They were all extremely appreciative. They wanted to give us food and everything else because the outpouring of support for these firefighters at the fire houses were amazing,” he said.

“People were dropping all sorts of food. There were boxes of socks and gloves and anything else. It was more than they could use, so they wanted to give it to us, but we wouldn’t accept it.”

Lawliss and the volunteers he went down to the city with were there for a day as many local responders from different agencies also went to help.

“It wasn’t just city fire, it was Clinton County as a whole,” Lawliss said. “It was a Clinton County response down there, and we were just lucky enough to be a part of it and to help out in any way we could.”

Lawliss said his time at Ground Zero gave him reassurance that he was in the right line of work.

“It really solidified the point that I’m in the right profession,” he said. “Being of service to people is what was rewarding to me.”

Twenty years later, Lawliss said he’s realized that some of the newer firefighters at the city’s fire department were toddlers during 9/11.

“They don’t have the perspective of you knowing where you were and what you were doing during 9/11,” he said.

“We’ll tell them about it, but it’s difficult. Some of them understand, but not really. I equate it to my father was stationed in the Army in Hawaii,” Lawliss said.

“There were still some sergeants there that were in Pearl Harbor. He said he never understood it. They had the firsthand knowledge, and it’s hard to get their perspective unless you were there. I see that now. But I know that if the circumstances were the same, everybody here now would do the same thing.”

Email Fernando Alba:

Twitter: @byfernandoalba


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