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County firefighters mourn, honor those lost

Peggy Faith was moving into her new home that morning when she heard a radio report about the planes striking and the towers falling. By evening she and her search dog, an Australian shepherd named Callie, were in Northern Virginia, trying to find survivors at the Pentagon.

Jose Sanchez was on a break while teaching a class at the fire academy when news broke in over the television about the attacks at the World Trade Center. He began planning to send his rookie students out to supplement the staffing at Howard County's stations.

For firefighters, 9/11 carries a special significance. The number "343" is embedded in their minds, as it's the number of firefighters and paramedics, their figurative brothers and sisters, killed in New York City that day.

Ten years later, they transport themselves back to Sept. 11, 2001, and the immediate aftermath.

"It doesn't seem like it's been 10 years, that's for sure," said Faith, 54, of Westminster, a master firefighter and fire engine driver for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services. "I don't know what to say other than that it still haunts me to some degree."

At the time, Faith also was part of Maryland Task Force 1, an urban search and rescue group that responds to disasters. Her team was called down to the Pentagon, which looked "horrific" and "like a war zone," Faith said.

"The building was still smoldering. It was like nothing I had ever seen before, and I've been in the fire department for a very long time and experienced a lot of tragedy in my career," she said.

The team never found any survivors. "The people that were alive got out, and those that didn't obviously were what we found later during the week," Faith said.

She recalled seeing a pair of shoes in an office and thinking that person must have run out of their shoes.

"I certainly hope whoever that was made it out," she said.

The search for surviving victims wrapped up late Wednesday, the day after the attacks, and the team was given other duties around the site, Faith said. They were at the Pentagon nearly a week, and during that time she never stopped thinking about all of the firefighters who were unaccounted for in New York City, she said.

Images from New York

Sanchez grew up in Long Beach, N.Y. On Sept. 11, he couldn't reach his sister, who lived in Long Island, nor did he know whether three friends with New York City's fire department — two in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn — were OK. They were all fine, he would learn later, and the friends were working on the recovery efforts.

The 48-year-old Columbia resident is a captain with Howard County's fire department and its collegiate leadership and educational programs coordinator. He is also a member of the department's honor guard, which meant he was in New York City on multiple occasions for firefighters' funerals.

About a week after the attacks, he was in the city and was given the courtesy of riding on a fire engine to see what was going on. There was one image from that tour he cannot forget.

"There was a firefighter who was still putting water on hot embers; everything was still smoking. He had tears in his eyes because they were pulling someone out as he was watering down the area," Sanchez said.

Sanchez incorporates the rescuers' heroic acts from Sept. 11 into what he teaches his trainees.

"The biggest thing we instill in our students is, sooner or later, you're going to be called to do the most difficult task there is," he said.

Faith and Sanchez will approach this 10th anniversary in different manners.

Faith plans to go camping on Sept. 11 with some non-firefighter friends.

"That's a day that I like to reflect on it by myself in my own way," Faith said. "It gives me a little distance from it. And given that it is the 10th anniversary, it's going to be a hard day — especially because I don't have my girl [Callie, her dog, who died two years ago] any longer. She was a big part of my life."

Sanchez is organizing a tribute that pays homage to a pear tree found amid the World Trade Center wreckage, a tree that had been badly damaged but survived and later thrived. Donated pear trees will be planted this Sept. 11 outside each of Howard County's fire stations, with plaques dedicated to the memory of "all the firefighters and civilians that we lost," he said.

He wants to make sure people remember what happened on 9/11 and recall how the nation came together in spite of the terrorists' intentions.

"They wanted to break us apart and they wanted to tear us down," Sanchez said. "And what they did, they actually built us up."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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