‘The ultimate sacrifice’: Emergency first responders reflect on 9/11

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On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the people of Northwest Colorado awoke to what they believed would be a day like any other.

By nightfall, their worldview, like the rest of the country’s, had changed.

The thousands of lives lost on 9/11 took a heavy toll, especially on law enforcement officers, firefighters and other emergency first responders in Craig and Moffat County, who felt the loss of their colleagues in arms hundreds of miles away.

The fateful day

Ryan Hess, a Moffat County Sheriff’s Office deputy, was a Moffat County High School senior when the attacks occurred. Hess said upon attending his first class, he could tell it wouldn’t be a normal school day.

“We turned on the TV and saw the video of the plane hitting the building, and I thought it was a movie at first,” he said. “The whole day was weird. Everyone knew something was going on and then the more we heard about it, it just got weirder.”

Hess said he was already considering a career in law enforcement at the time, but 9/11 helped push him into the field. He remembered thinking 10 years ago that his generation had just seen something tantamount to the 1960s assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other tragedies that bonded people in his parents’ youth.

Hearing stories of people who sacrificed their lives also inspired him.

“You always grew up around these sports figures that everyone was talking about, but for one day, firefighters and cops were the heroes, the idols of America,” he said. “This was truly who America was. It was the one day where we were actually America. Nobody was fighting, everybody was there for that single purpose of helping people.”

Rachel Nicodemus, an EMT for The Memorial Hospital’s Emergency Medical Services, was only three months into her job when she was faced with news coverage of the attacks.

“I just remember seeing it on TV and thinking, ‘What the hell?’” she said.

Nicodemus said she truly admired the medical personnel who responded to the chaos in New York City.

“I can’t imagine what all those people were going through,” she said. “There were just so many who needed help and there was no way to figure out who to help first, but it’s your job and they were doing what they were trained to do.”

The aftermath

Among the Craig natives who served in the military following 9/11, many came home to serve the community in a similar function.

Craig Fire/Rescue firefighter Tyler McWilliams, EMT Jeremy Chambers and Craig Police Department Patrol Sgt. Brian Soper each went overseas to Iraq.

At the time, Soper was enlisted in the Army Reserves.

“We traveled around a lot, building bases,” he said. “We were helping out the local police because those guys were always under attack and getting bombed.”

Soper, who first began with the Craig Police Department in 1998, said seeing the situation in the Middle East kept him mindful of the difference between law enforcement in the U.S. and other nations.

“They had it pretty rough over there, they were being targeted by Al-Qaeda,” he said. “They were having a hard time getting officers because they were always being picked off.”

Soper’s colleague, Cpl. Alvin Luker, saw his own action in the region during the Gulf War in the 1990s.

“Their experience over there is a lot different from what we did back then,” he said.

Luker, who joined the force in 2001, said being a police officer in a post-9/11 world took some getting used to in the following months.

“Everybody felt vulnerable, angry, some people were depressed, and obviously surprised that it could happen,” he said. “That day, we dealt with some people who were pretty impacted by everything.”

However, some positives came about, as well.

Soper said serving overseas gave him a new reason to come home and resume his job with the police department.

“I met my wife over there, and after we both got out, we had kids, so they’re the end result of my time over there,” he said. “I would still be serving today if not for my little ones. I want to be here for them. That’s one thing that you realize is the troops that are fighting over there, they feel a little more secure knowing that we’re here to protect their families.”

Luker said “increased awareness” by law enforcement to possible safety threats has helped people communicate their concerns.

“Information is shared better,” he said. “I think it also brought a lot of people closer together knowing the people who worked that day gave the ultimate sacrifice, and that’s always something that should be remembered.”

Keeping the flame of remembrance burning

Firefighter Kevin Kernen was one year into his service with Craig Fire/Rescue in September 2001.

“They always tell you this job is dangerous, and it kind of hit home that day,” he said. “Whenever you think about that many people being killed, it really makes you stop and think. It makes you want to look out for yourself and look out for everybody else.”

Kris Olsen has been a Craig Fire/Rescue firefighter for seven years.

“9/11 was definitely part of my thought process when I joined the department,” he said. “Even in small town Craig, America, stuff like that can happen as easy as it happened there. It makes you more aware, and I think it drives people here to do more. Everyone here gives 100 percent, but something like that makes you want to do 110.”

Kernen said he believes the media coverage of the incidents has given people a new appreciation of firefighting and other such jobs.

“With that stuff all over TV, the public got to realize how dangerous it was,” he said. “Being the family that we are, a lot of times we keep all that stuff to ourselves. We felt kind of helpless, being as far away from New York as we are, but we wanted to help.

“When those guys went in there that day, they didn’t know they were going in there to die, they were just going to work.”

On Sunday, Kernen will participate in the 9/11 Stair-Climb at Denver’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre hosted by West Metro Fire Rescue Local 1309.

Dozens of regional firefighters will commemorate the service of fallen comrades.

“You just have a general connection with all firefighters once you get involved, it doesn’t matter where they are,” Olsen said. “I’m sure there won’t be a firefighter in this nation who doesn’t have a moment of personal reflection on that day.”

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