Thank you. It is an honor and privilege to be here tonight. I’d like to thank Jim O’Donnell and Peter Chanteloupe for inviting me to this important event.
It is now two months after the most heinous crime ever committed on American soil, two months after the darkest hour in the 300-year history of the American fire service.
The funerals and memorial services for New York firefighters started in ones and twos. Then a dozen. Then 20. And still, FDNY is still only a little more than halfway through burying its brothers.
For weeks, women with children, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers waited for words their hearts refuse to hear.
The firefighters on a grim detail arrived at Andy’s house to give his wife the inevitable news. Little Haley, the beautiful blonde girl Andy used to take with him to our office, who buried her curly head in her daddy’s shoulder if I so much as looked at her, played with her toys as the grown-ups gathered in the living room to console each other. Andrew, the nine-year-old who had been without his dad for three weeks now, three weeks filled with unspoken dread, was coming home from school. He saw the fire department vehicles parked outside his house, and understood what it all meant without having to be told. He burst into tears on his way through the front door and locked himself in his bedroom, refusing to come out, inconsolable. Little Haley kept playing with her toys, seemingly oblivious.
But she will understand, soon enough. In a way, she already does. She’ll feel the pain of being fatherless. She’ll cry at night for her daddy’s touch with tears that fall into an infinite well of loss.
Through an incredible, savage act of murder, the citizens of this great country have been shocked-as generations past have been shocked-into recognition of the high cost of freedom. The price of freedom-the innocents and the heroes-are buried in the ground. And Haley and Andrew, having lost their father, a great fire patriot and hero, are two of thousands of children who will live forever in the long, sad shadow of the World Trade Center horror.
We will mourn the cost of freedom for a long time. But the price we have paid strengthens our conviction-it must. It’s part of what we’re made of. Freedom is more than a belief. Freedom is a living condition filled with suffering and triumph. We hold it inside us. If we as a country are a tree, freedom is our roots. And our roots just got bigger, deeper. Just go ahead and try to shake us out of the ground. Just try.
The events of September 11 and the toll they have taken on the American fire service make this meeting tonight all the more significant. We-the fire service and America-need you strong, thinking, focused, now more than ever. Your actions now and beyond are what will bring the fire service and America to rise up out of the ashes of defeat and despair. Your actions now-and what you keep in your hearts from now on-are what will keep alive the memory of those who perished in the disaster of September 11.
Firefighters, you must know now that the people of America have woken up to you. On a battlefield of life and death called World Trade Center Ground Zero, the stuff you’re made of was clear for all to see. Now America sees. In one moment crystallized forever in time, the world fell down upon the fire service but the fire service rose above the world.
America glimpsed into the hearts and minds of its greatest heroes and embraced you in the understanding that America’s firefighters truly are our front-line domestic defenders, our domestic response army, our warriors in the response war at home, and guardians of an enduring, sacred trust between the fire service and the public.
I remember my friend Ray Downey, a great and wonderful man, exhorting a large audience of firefighters at FDIC to prepare for acts of terrorism on U.S. soil. “The question is not IF it will happen, but WHEN,” he said. And it is so bitterly ironic that Ray was taken from us at the World Trade Center collapse.
But recognizing and accepting that bare and grim reality, it is all the more vital that every firefighter-and American citizen-comes to a full appreciation of what the fire service is and what it can become. Together, we must create a new vision and take new steps to bring the fire service into its greatest era, one that proclaims, “Ray, you didn’t die in vain.”
And so tonight, in the memory of our fallen brothers and sisters, we call upon the American public to support its army of heroes with historic conviction.
Because, ladies and gentlemen, even as we remember our fallen friends for the gifts and the love they have so freely given, even as I applaud you in your heartfelt efforts to help take care of the families left to carry on in the wake of this terrible tragedy, I must in good conscience make this clear:
Pretty words and grand speeches will not help this fire service when it counts most-in the trenches, in the first few hours of response in which life and death hang in the balance. It is training and equipment and human resources the fire department needs most of all. The greatest way to honor our dead heroes is to honor our living heroes by giving them the tools to survive and be victorious in the battles ahead.
For I tell you, even as I still can barely move my eyes from the horrible vision of Ground Zero, even as I am bombarded with it by the media and in everyday conversation, even as I tearfully embrace firefighters at funerals and memorial services, even as I weep for the fatherless, even as I yearn to hug my own children at this very moment, even as I struggle to conduct ordinary business that seems so unimportant in light of all that has happened, there are, at this moment and every day, firefighters in New York and throughout the country responding to fires, to medical calls, to anthrax calls, to rescue calls, to calls of planes dropping out of the sky. Smoke still pushes from bedrooms in America from fires that barely get a one-paragraph notice on page B39 in the local paper.
Firefighters still do their jobs, they are still in harm’s way, they are still being heroes-like it has always been, as they have always done it across America, at terrorist events and at house fires and at haz mat calls.
Before and after the World Trade Center disaster, American firefighters are still more likely to be injured or killed at a structure fire than they were 20 years ago.
Civilians in America still are 40 percent more likely to be injured in a fire today than they were 20 years ago.
American firefighters still are entering fire buildings underequipped, undertrained, and undermanned.
American buildings still are dangerous firefighter battlefields that fall down.
Still too many fire departments throughout America lack the manpower to do the job as safely and effectively as possible.
Yes, America moves on after the attack, picking itself up by its bootstraps, and as it does so, this year and the next year and the next and the next we will etch too many names on stones at the National Fallen Firefighter Memorial in Maryland.
But firefighters, and the citizens who deeply honor our fallen brothers and sisters tonight, I have every hope that you will take this fire service where it needs to be, even as there remains a huge hole in the American skyline and in our hearts. And I will tell you why.
Surely, the death planes pierced the occupied towers and the hearts of every man, woman, and child in America. And we were stricken to the point at which our hearts nearly broke apart.
From two miles across the Hudson River, I saw the towers fall. I saw the dark, smoking cloud push outward and upward and then descend over Manhattan, the beginning of what has been a collision of dark days and eerie nights into one endless nightmare of pulverized bones and twisted steel.
I went to Ground Zero to help, to work, to see for myself, to console-anything. I was one of the nameless thousands who couldn’t stay away.
I saw the firefighters stop and remove their helmets, in silent prayer, when they found what was left of one of their brothers. I saw the firefighters carry the body bags to the makeshift morgue, their faces contorted with pain and grief.
I saw 240 stories of humanity, symbolism, and steel crushed horrifically into 10-story piles of chaos, dwarfing thousands of men and women who worked on them ferociously to free the living and the dead, stone by stone, piece by piece.
I was among hundreds running for their lives on the exposure A-D side of an adjacent, bombed-out, 40-story structure at the sudden report of imminent secondary collapse. The men and women on the pile? They were still working.
I saw men in white shirts with gold horns trying desperately to wrap their arms around an event so big it was like trying to get your arms around the world.
But in the determined faces of the men trying to wrap their arms around the unimaginable, I saw you.
In the sad yet determined and undefeated eyes of those whose faces and turnouts were caked with the dust of death, I saw life and hope-I saw you. Their turnouts said to me, “Everywhere USA Fire Department.”
In the figures of those who for days refused to leave the site where their brothers fell, who, despite raw, aching feet, tired limbs, heavy hearts, and numb minds had a flame burning inside that moved them forward-lifting, cutting, sweating, bleeding, tunneling, searching-in those figures, I saw you.
It was you I saw in an embrace of brotherhood set against the backdrop of terror.
It was you raising the flag at Ground Zero.
It was you carrying on in the way the living fire service must do, with honor, courage, and determination, with blood, sweat, and tears.
And I knew. It was so clear. At the twisted wreckage of Ground Zero that held within its secrets so many brothers, an army of firefighters planted a seed that America watered with its tears.
You are the seed. Your life giving, your courage, your excellence, your brilliance, and your sacrifice are America’s seed. The seed will grow. We will grow.
You are one, united, an army of the finest men and women ever assembled on this earth.
And I know, by the actions you take from this day forward, by your daily acts supporting the righteous cause, by your great works yet to be fulfilled, by your small and big sacrifices, that the spirit of those wonderful people who perished on September 11 live on.
My friends, you whose family I am so proud and privileged to be a part of, know this:
They are alive. They are alive in you, as you carry this great fire service forward. They are alive in the hearts and minds of firefighters across America, immortalized by your daily acts of courage and sacrifice and goodness that symbolize all that is great and good about our nation.
And that is what gives me the hope and the strength to carry on. And that is how I know you will create a new vision for this fire service and take it to a new level.
We will live on, we will embrace greatness. We will keep their flame, the enduring flame of greatness, burning inside of us.
We are not vanquished: We are the fire service.
And I am so proud of you.
God bless our firefighters. God bless this fire service. God bless America.
To view the video of Bill’s speech, as well as other events at the Benefit, visit www.firedispatch.com/FDNYBenefit.html. To view video clips, you’ll need at least a 100 K connection.