Of the 2,977 victims killed in the September 11, 2001 attacks, 412 were emergency workers, 409 men and three women, in New York City who responded to the World Trade Center including 343 firefighters of the New York City Fire Department, 37 police officers with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Departments, 23 police officers from the New York City Police Department, eight EMTs and paramedics from private emergency medical services, three New York State officers and a patrolman from New York Fire Patrol.
These courageous men and women ran toward the danger that Tuesday morning. Thousands of people’s lives were saved due to their bravery. Their actions that day have inspired others and continue to be a testament of bravery for the country.
On this the 20th anniversary of that fateful day, Branson Tri-Lakes News reached out to our local first responders to get their thoughts on the attacks, and how life changed for them and the country.
What happened to you on the morning of September 11, 2001?
Ken Koyles, Volunteer firefighter with Southern Stone County Fire Protection District and AFJROTC Instructor at Republic High School: “(I was) on my way to work in Kansas City. I heard about it on the radio, got to work and turned on the TV. 9/11 was a Tuesday, I received a letter on that Saturday inviting me to join the reserves. That next Monday I was at the recruiter and enlisted.”
Branson Assistant Police Chief Eric Schmitt: “I was a Sergeant with a metro Denver area agency and was in Ft. Collins, CO, for a clandestine drug lab training class. It was in a Marriott Hotel Conference area and my wife was upstairs in our hotel room.I was walking to the class area and passed a restaurant where people were standing around watching events unfold on TV. I stopped and watched as the second plane crashed into the towers. I then called my wife and told her to turn on the TV and worked my way back up to our room. My wife was crying heavily and believed we had just entered a war.
“Our class was cancelled and I was recalled to my police department to help provide extra coverage as we did not know what was coming. We had a city block that was heavily populated by Middle Eastern businesses and I had worked with them for several years. I immediately reached out to them to make sure no one was targeting them for revenge or other blame related issues. These were very fine people and they were as heartbroken, if not more so, than many other community members because they knew what was about to happen and the long term ramifications. Many had fled Iraq and Iran to escape this type of terror in the first place.”
Captain Mike Riepl with Southern Stone County Fire Protection District: “On September 11, 2001 our newly formed Technical Rescue Team was in Eureka, MO. We were set to train with Eureka’s Fire Departments Technical Rescue Team who were also part of Missouri’s Task Force One. Our team had spent the night at Eureka’s Station 3. On the morning of September 11, I walked into the lobby and kitchen area to eat breakfast and saw firefighters surrounding the TV gasping in disbelief. A plane had just struck one of the Twin Towers. We were in shock and disbelief talking to each other. Then...the second plane hit the next tower. You could have heard a pin drop. Silence! We all knew that it was no accident…Assistant Chief Donny Tomitz asked us to stay focused on the training set for the day. When Asst. Chief Tomitz received a radio call from the Chief. He said to report back immediately to the situation room...We were all in the situation room and the Chief began painting a picture of what was happening. He started calling names and said your Team A. And then again calling more names...you’re Team B! Come to find out that Missouri’s Task Force One Team was first up in the rotation for any national emergencies. Eureka’s Fire Department had a handful of Missouri’s team members. They had one hour to pack before heading out. Our team inventoried the two 40 ft. trailers full of tools and gear. They then headed to Columbia to board a C130 and flew to New Jersey where they boarded buses and headed through the Lincoln Tunnel to the site of the Twin Towers. We drove back home thinking World War III was possibly starting.”
Branson Fire Rescue Fire Chief Ted Martin: “I was at work at Fire Station #1 serving as the Technical Services Division Chief”. I was at Fire Station 1, with the crews huddled around the television in the Day Room after the reports of the first plane striking one of the towers. We first thought it was a small private plane... soon to discover the incident was going from bad to worse with three more airliners. All we could really do is pray for those citizens affected and the emergency responders. It also required that we be prepared to put in motion our emergency operations plans should (it)ripple into our community.”
Branson Police Chief Jeff Matthews: “I was working with the Arlington, TX Police Department. I was a day shift patrol lieutenant, I was actually patrolling that morning. I heard of the first attack on a local radio talk show - it was described as a small plane striking the tower.”
How has your life changed as a result of 9/11?
Koyles: “I had just retired from active duty in 1997. I spent the next 13 years in the reserves and deployed to Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2006, 2008 and 2012. I then went back in 2015 as a contractor. 9/11 completely changed my life. I was working for a hospital group in KC and then I was back in uniform and went to work for a defence contractor (Northrop Grumman). Now I’m teaching AFJROTC (best job I’ve ever had) and still in uniform. I’m originally from NY and my youngest brother was in the fire department then (he has since retired). He was under the first tower when it came down.”
(Go to page 6 and 7 to read David Koyle’s Timing is everything: 9/11 Through the eyes of a New York City firefighter)
Schmitt: “This was the first real attack on our homeland in my lifetime and it brought the realization that we were not immune from foreign conflicts and issues.I also was on our SWAT team and was assigned as a Co-Chair for the Denver Region’s UASI (Urban Area Security Initiative) committee on tactical operations. I worked with Subject Matter Experts from Emergency Management, Fire, Law Enforcement, Hazmat, etc. and we identified capability gaps in the 10 county Denver region related to terrorist attacks. A result of this was our opportunity to bring in experts in Terrorism, Special Operators from our elite military units and other fields. I was able to speak with people that had sat across the table from some of the most hardened terrorists and learned what their future plans to attack America were. It is this knowledge that keeps me focused on never forgetting 9/11 and knowing that terrorists will repeatedly attempt to attack our country again. My life has primarily changed in that I will never forget, nor will I cease to be vigilant in protecting my community and country. My children have also been reared to respect our military and first responders and always be prepared to fight if they are attacked.”
Riepl: “Life changed that day for the living and the unborn. It created a life of uncertainty and questionable hope for America.”
Martin: “9/11 has caused emergency services across the nation to be better prepared and equipped to respond to a major disaster. Here in the Branson area we were federally funded by Homeland Security to train and equip emergency responders to support a regional hazardous response team consisting of Fire, Law Enforcement and Emergency Medical Services working together. At the State level all emergency services have worked to develop a more interoperable radio communications system - this was a huge challenge for responders at the towers as fire and police officers had difficulties communicating between disciplines.”
Matthews: “As an officer, all aspects of our work have changed - prior to 911, local agencies focused on local and regional issues - now we maintain a global perspective.”
How has the world changed because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks?
Koyles: “I think it has made us all aware of how vulnerable we all are. I also believe it has opened our eyes to how much evel there is in the world.”
Schmitt: “As with many crises, it initially brought countries together and our intelligence, resources and funding greatly improved. Unfortunately, I have seen this support wane and the teamwork of many of our allies has diminished.
“We’ve also seen a type of ‘desensitization’ in our public. It used to be very rare to see police officers holding rifles in public yet this is now a common sight, especially around large gatherings. I think many people realized that no one is immune from terrorist attacks so the public has accepted a greater security presence around large events.”
Riepl: “We (America) have with no fault of our own been forced to keep the peace in the world, which I believe we do with pride. Like a big brother trying to keep the peace between younger siblings. Most of the time the siblings (foreign countries) get along, but when big brother isn’t looking or paying attention all heck breaks loose until he steps in again. The tiffs here and there between foreign countries keeps me on edge. Is today going to be another 9/11? It makes my heart race! But we must keep hope and the American Dream Alive!”
Martin: “Initially, our nation united. Blood drives were full with long waiting lines, and churches experienced record attendance. Citizens, businesses and nonprofits were more united than ever, ready to serve and work together. Maybe not so much today - but as we reflect on the 20th anniversary of the 9-11 attack on our nation - maybe we should focus on unity and what legacy we want to champion.”
Matthews: “I believe 911 initially drew many countries together but unfortunately the world appears more divided now than ever.”
Why do you think young people should learn about 9/11?
Koyles: “So we don’t let our guard down and allow this to happen again.”
Schmitt: “I am a firm believer in societies repeating their past mistakes, if they do not remember them, and I fear that we will not be an exception. It is important for our youth to learn about this attack as they need to consider it when they are voters and want their voices to be heard. Since they are not old enough to have lived through the attack, it is incumbent upon us to educate them as to the dynamics that led to this attack.
“There are two recent events that have me worried about our upcoming months in this country. First is the porous border issue. Regardless of the immigration debate, our border security is now nearly non-existent and this provides terrorists an easy way to smuggle themselves, weapons and WMD’s into this country. Second is the pullout from Afghanistan. Again, regardless of the politics of the issue, our presence in the Middle East did more than most Americans understand. Basically, it kept the terrorists busy in their backyard instead of ours. Now that we are not there anymore, it is likely just a matter of time before this country sees another attack. I would hope that educating our children would enable them to make informed choices when supporting various political agendas.”
Riepl: “Passing on our sorrows and the heroic actions of the people on board the planes and on the ground on 9/11 to our young people will hopefully instill a sense of pride and courage in the fabric of our youth.”
Martin: “All of us should be focused on championing a legacy. Here in Ozark Mountain Country we get to champion a legacy of family, faith, friends, flag and future. We get to experience this everyday as we live, work and play in one of the greatest parts of the country - pass it on!”
Matthews: “There are many lessons to remember from 9/11, as a country, we were somewhat complacent- we allowed many to enter our country who wish to harm the U.S. We must remember, there are people who do not appreciate our freedoms and wish to bring harm to our country. We must maintain constant vigilance while ensuring we always maintain the Constitutional freedoms our founding fathers fought for.”