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‘It needs to not be forgotten’: 20 years later, two Howard County first responders reflect on 9/11 attacks

With the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks approaching this weekend, memories of that day are weighing on many people’s minds.

Nearly 3,000 people were killed that morning when hijackers took over four planes. The attackers flew the airline jets into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., and, after passengers and crew fought back, a field in Pennsylvania.

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Howard County Executive Calvin Ball, other elected officials and command members from the county police and fire departments, among others, will honor those who lost their lives during the attacks, including four victims from Howard County, with a wreath-laying ceremony on Saturday. The event will begin promptly at 8:46 a.m., marking the time the first plane hit the north tower, and will take place in the Garden of Hope located across from the outdoor amphitheater at Centennial Park South.

Here, two Howard County first responders recall that fateful day and how it changed their lives.

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‘Waiting for an attack’

Battalion Chief Steve Hardesty was a hazmat officer for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services, working at the scene of an overturned tractor-trailer when the events of 9/11 occurred. Ordered to return to headquarters, Hardesty was told to call and check on his family, as the county was going into lockdown, and it was not clear when he would be able to return home.

“We were waiting for an attack,” Hardesty said. “We were checking different things and it was eerie. No traffic. No airplane traffic. Really, really eerie.”

The county, Hardesty said, realized very quickly that it would be on its own if something were to happen here.

“We had a false sense of security. We were very dependent on our partners,” Hardesty said. “With a big incident like that … sharing resources was not happening. We were on our own.”

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Things got very different after that day, Hardesty said, with new training, equipment and procedures evolving that are now commonplace but were not then.

Battalion Chief Steve Hardesty was a hazmat officer for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services when the events of 9/11 occurred.
Battalion Chief Steve Hardesty was a hazmat officer for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services when the events of 9/11 occurred. (Courtesy photo / HANDOUT)

The hazmat unit used to focus on building collapses and natural disasters, with the occasional bomb/explosive class, said Hardesty, who is now 51.

“Prior to 9/11, if someone called and a backpack was left at the bus stop, it was not unusual to just go and open it up,” Hardesty said. “Now, the guy who opens it is on the bomb squad. Sept. 11 changed our thought process.”

Using federal and Department of Homeland Security funding available after 9/11, Howard County invested in its fire departments by providing new equipment — including several rescue boats — and sending members of its response force and special operations teams to specialized training around the country, Hardesty said.

“They share with the rest of the guys what they learned,” Hardesty said.

When a local business started receiving letters with a suspicious powder in them, the hazmat team was able to respond to it.

“Most of our prior hazmat calls were for motor vehicle accidents or small laboratory spills,” Hardesty said. “It went from the first time taking 3.5 hours to determine it was rat poisoning to down to 40 minutes for the last incident.”

After Sept. 11, “we developed good working relationships with Homeland Security, the FBI and other resources we had never dealt with or needed to before,” Hardesty said.

The department also started sending crews to help with natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 to gain knowledge and experience from the crews working there, Hardesty said. A team was recently sent to the Gulf Coast to help after Hurricane Ida.

“It prepared us so much better,” Hardesty said. “When Ellicott City flooded, all that training paid off. With the flood in 2011, we learned our shortcomings and were able to go back and retrain. With the 2016 flood, we were ready for it.”

The department also identified potential terrorist targets in the county after 9/11.

“We have what I call ‘high affluent’ targets — federal facilities, facilities that support federal government, laboratories and stuff,” Hardesty said. “On a day-to-day basis, all very safe operations that could be a terrorist target.”

People are more aware of what is going on in the world, and potentially dangerous people are watched, Hardesty said.

“Sept. 11 really opened our eyes that there are people in this world that don’t agree with us or our beliefs and are willing to bring harm to us,” Hardesty said. “We are keeping an eye out to make sure Sept. 11 doesn’t happen again.”

He also knows the events of 9/11 are slowly fading into memory, as many new recruits were not even born at the time. The constant, evolving training, however, will not fade away

“It pushed us and made us better prepared,” Hardesty said. “A lot of the training we do today is because of 9/11. We are now better prepared on state and local levels.”

‘Kind of on alert’

On Sept. 11, 2001, Stacy Ruehl, a master firefighter paramedic at Howard County Fire and Rescue Station 10, and two colleagues were attending diversity training at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City when a woman came to the door, apologized for interrupting and said a plane had hit the World Trade Center in New York City.

Spilling out of the classroom to see the television, the class watched as the second tower was hit.

Stacy Ruehl was a master firefighter paramedic at Howard County Fire and Rescue Station 10 when the events of 9/11 occurred.
Stacy Ruehl was a master firefighter paramedic at Howard County Fire and Rescue Station 10 when the events of 9/11 occurred. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

“We realized that was not a coincidence,” Ruehl said. “We were shoved back into diversity training when they asked all police officers in the class, and then all firefighters, to return to their stations.”

She said: “That was the beginning of, ‘Wow, what is happening?’ ”

Station 10 in Columbia is a special operations station equipped to handle mass-casualty situations, Ruehl said. With the attack on the Pentagon less than an hour after New York, the station began to prepare to help if it was called into service.

“The rest of the day we were puling out all of our mass-casualty stuff and taking inventory of it so we knew what we had and how many we could handle,” Ruehl said. “It was very surreal. Everyone was kind of on alert.”

With Howard County “right in the middle” between New York City and Washington, the possibility was very real that the station would be called into help, Ruehl said.

“I was only four years in the department and was just doing my job,” said Ruehl, now 49 and a captain paramedic with the Maryland Bureau of Occupational Safety and Health. “I was just trying to keep up. It was probably going to be one of the biggest things of my life. I wanted to do my job, do it well and make sure all of my co-workers went home safe.”

While the station was never called into action that day or on any of the following days, Ruehl said it was an experience “you always remember.”

Since that day, Ruehl believes people are more alert and aware of their surroundings than before, and that people look out for each other more.

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It is important, she added, that the day and its events do not fade into memory.

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“Twenty years ago was real. It was not a movie,” Ruehl said. “It needs to be taught. It needs to not be forgotten.”

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