Firefighter recounts 9/11 aid
McKeesport firefighter Jimmy Young wants local students to understand the impact of 9/11 on first responders, the New York community and the United States as a whole.
As the culminating activity for a two-week unit on the 9/11 attacks, McKeesport Area's East End Academy students talked with Young about his experience helping New York firefighters search for their friends and colleagues along with other victims in the World Trade Center rubble in 2001.
Earlier this month, students began a lesson on 9/11 covering theories on what led to the attack, rescue and cleanup efforts and the lasting impact on society.
“To hear a first-person account from someone who was actually physically there changes how students learn about this,” social studies teacher Gerald McGrew said. “Teaching a 9/11 lesson made me realize what my teachers went through when they taught us about Vietnam. It was something they lived through and experienced. My students were in preschool when (9/11) happened, so they think of it as just a lesson or a story. This makes it real.”
Twelve years ago, Young and fellow firefighter Chris Cerci left McKeesport after learning that two hijacked passenger airplanes had crashed into the North and South towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. Unsure where they were headed or how they could help, they set out to do whatever was needed.
Asking authorities where they could be of service upon arrival, they headed toward lower Manhattan to help the crews of FDNY's Engine 24/Ladder 5. Not knowing that 11 of FDNY's firefighters had perished in the buildings' collapse, Young and Cerci began making breakfast to nourish the crew. They introduced themselves and were shocked when the crew gave them an appreciative, yet chilling welcome.
“They brought us out to the front of their fire station and asked how, of all the fire stations in New York, we chose theirs,” Young said. The New York firefighters pointed to bronze plaques on the building's facade bearing the names Jimmy Young and Chris Siedenburg — two of their crew members who had been killed in action six years prior to the 9/11 attacks.
“There we were in their fire station,” Young said. “Two firefighters named Jimmy and Chris there to help them when 11 more (of their crew members) were killed ... After a handshake and a hug, we were a part of their team.”
After a silently focused bus ride, they marched two-by-two into the city's financial district, not knowing who or what they would find.
Young and Cerci spent three days helping at the fire station and working 12-hour shifts at Ground Zero, sifting through debris and working alongside their FDNY brothers — hoping to find survivors, but finding only remains.
On Friday, Young shared a slideshow with students as he described the waves of adrenaline and trepidation that waxed and waned with each part of their mission. While they saw horrific things, Young said, they did what they had to do to help the people of New York City.
“It wasn't about us,” Young said. “It was about the people who were missing.”
Young said the emotions of the surviving firefighters who lost two crews — the attack occurred during a shift change — are difficult to fathom.
“You're here in a class with maybe 22 people,” Young told students. “Imagine 11 of the people around you just being gone.”
Students said Young's memories put a personalized perspective on the topic they've discussed for two weeks.
“It's interesting because they drove all the way from here in McKeesport to New York to try to save lives,” junior Loren Andrews said.
When students asked how they chose New York over the Pentagon or Somerset County, Young said they never considered anywhere but New York.
“That is where we felt we were needed,” he said. “Going somewhere else never came to mind.”
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or firstname.lastname@example.org.