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Local firefighters remember bretheran lost on 9/11

Of the almost 3,000 who died on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, 343 were firefighters and other first-responders who are trained to run toward disaster when others are running away from it.

And though those firefighters were more than 1,000 miles from Ashland when the World Trade Center came crashing down, first-responders here feel united in brotherhood with each of them.

Ashland Fire Capt. Scott Thimm recalls being on the fire station floor doing vehicle checks when another firefighter summoned him to see what was happening on the TV.

"It was kind of surreal," Thimm said. "The first tower was hit, then the second tower, then the Pentagon. Before the first tower even went down, I looked at the other guys I was with and said, 'I wonder how many we are going to lose today?' I knew something bad was going to happen. I didn't know the towers were going to come down, but I knew we were going to lose firefighters that day, and we did."

The attack left a profound impression on Thimm. Like other first responders across the nation, he is spiritually linked to those men and women who died 20 years ago — and physically linked.

"I honor those 343 New York firefighters by having the number 343 embroidered on the back of my helmet, so that I never forget," he said.

Thimm said that he has come to a fuller appreciation of what it means to be a firefighter since that day.

"It makes me aware that on any given day, when we go to work that might be the last time you kiss your wife and kids goodbye, or maybe your husband and kids —we have men and women working here — and it doesn't have to be big city like New York to have a tragedy," he said.

And remembering that shouldn't be limited to firefighters, Ashland Fire Chief Stuart Matthias said.

"It is important to all firefighters, and I think it's important to all of us as citizens of our country," he said.

Mike Pederson had just taken over as chief of the Washburn Fire Department in 2001. Watching firefighters rushing to the scene of the catastrophe as others fled galvanized in him his commitment to the job.

"It was really disturbing to see all that, but that is what firemen do — they go into fires and try to help out people who are inside," he said.

Like others, Pederson watched the tragedy unfold on television and was reminded of the danger he and his comrades face doing their jobs.

"It makes you think about it, you make sure that we do things like good fire inspections and try to reduce the risks," he said.

Though small-town volunteer fighters like those in Washburn are a world away from big agencies like the New York Fire Department, the risks posed by a serious fire are the same.

"We go into a burning house and you can get caught no matter what. That's why we do more in-depth training, looking out for falling things and all that. We do a lot more training now, more intensively than we did before," Pederson said.

Bayfield Fire Chief Jeff Boutin said 9/11 was a clarifying event for him.

"I guess it puts life into perspective, that you have to stand up for what you believe, you defend the American flag, you watch out for your fellow firefighters in similar situations," he said.

Boutin said he had been with the department for less than two years when the attack came. It didn't really cement in him the choice to make firefighting a career, but neither did it discourage him.

"My love for the fire department is just doing my volunteer work, doing what I like to do. It's not always a bed of roses, but it's a good brotherhood to be a part of," he said.

Back in Ashland, Thimm today fears that the sacrifices made on 9/11 are in danger of being forgotten, and hopes the 20th anniversary reminds people of those who were lost.

"We can go around and pound our chests all we want and say, 'We will never forget,' but I am not convinced that isn't starting to happen," he said. "After 9/11 you couldn't drive down the street without seeing flags that people had put up. Now you have people burning the flag. People have forgotten what happened and it makes me angry."

But for emergency services, the lesson has not been forgotten, said Matthias.

"We are certainly more aware of a wider range of possibilities. We now prepare for a wider set of threats than we did 20 years ago. We keep an eye and ear on global events," he said.

9/11 memorial service

Ashland police, firefighters and the Chequamegon United Veterans will host a 20th anniversary memorial service at the Ashland bandshell Saturday, Sept. 11, beginning at 7:20 a.m.

Local vet denied chance to attend 9/11 service

Ashland-area resident Patrick A. McKuen was a U.S. Army paratrooper 20 years ago, serving with the elite Old Guard Third Infantry Regiment in Washington, D.C.

when a hijacked jet crashed into the Pentagon, killing 184.

It is a moment that McKuen and his fellow soldiers will never forget. Two decades later they remain bonded by what they saw and the things they had to do in the aftermath of the terrorist attack.

About 40 former members of the Old Guard plan to return to the Pentagon Saturday on the 20th anniversary of that awful day, seeking a kind of closure in each other's company — a chance to share old memories and pain and perhaps find some healing in the memorial service being held there in memory of those who died in the attack.

McKuen says his unit richly deserves the opportunity — though the Defense Department is trying to prevent it.

The Old Guard is instantly recognizable through its participation in many of the most important ceremonial events held in the nation's capital. Its soldiers guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and comprise the Presidential Salute Battery that renders honors at state visits and funerals. But members of the Old Guard are not just ceremonial soldiers; they are also an elite military unit ready to defend Washington in times of national emergency or civil disturbance.

McKuen was at a ceremony on 9/11 when the word arrived for the men in his detail to immediately head back to their post at Fort Meyer, across the highway from the Pentagon. As they arrived, they saw smoke and fire roiling from the Pentagon's collapsed west side. As soon as they could get into their battle gear, they loaded into HUMVs and began patrolling the streets of Washington D.C. around the Pentagon.

When it became clear that there would be no more attacks, the men were assigned to go into the wrecked parts of the Pentagon and sift through debris in search of evidence or victims.

They performed those tasks for weeks, camped next to the building. Their tents pitched next to the chaplain's tent, the men could hear the anguish of family members who were told their loved ones didn't make it — loved ones that members of the Old Guard had removed from the crash site.

Twenty years later those memories are still fresh in the minds of McKuen and his fellow soldiers. Many of the men who served with the unit in those days are still close and have had several reunions. For the 20-year reunion, they planned a service at the Pentagon with fundraising for members who could not otherwise afford to go, to help them buy appropriate clothing if needed, and to help pay transportation costs. Lodging was arranged, and everything appeared to be in order.

Then, in early September, the 40 or so veterans who planned to attend the event were handed stunning news, McKuen said.

"We found out yesterday from the Department of Defense that first responders will not be allowed to attend the ceremony," he said Tuesday. "They stated in the email that if we liked, we could send one person to represent our group."

That offer was a slap in the face to the men who labored for weeks to retrieve the remains of those killed at the Pentagon.

"The purpose of this reunion for many was to find closure and to go to the Pentagon for the first time since our recovery missions," McKuen said.

The Pentagon told McKuen that visits were limited because of the pandemic.

McKuen said all of the 40 men planning on making the trip had been vaccinated against COVID and all were willing to wear masks during the ceremony.

"Twenty years ago they had no problem with us going into a burning building without any kind of protection whatsoever," he said. "Now many of these guys, my buddies, have cancer, so I don't know why they are doing this."

McKuen said many of the people who died on 9/11 were first responders, and the same policy is being applied in New York, where 343 firefighters and police died in the collapse of the World Trade Center towers.

It's not the first time first responders have been kept out of the ceremonies. When the Twin Towers memorial was opened in 2011, and again in 2016, firefighters were barred from the New York ceremonies because of what organizers said was a lack of space.

Such explanations aren't good enough for McKuen.

"It's unfathomable. Up until now, we've been allowed to go, but on the 20th reunion, we are suddenly not allowed to attend any more," he said.

But it's going to take more than a Department of Defense directive to keep the men of the Old Guard away.

"We are going," McKuen said. "We are going to adapt and overcome, as we have always done. We are not going to settle for someone in Washington saying 'You are not worthy.'"

McKuen said his group will travel to the Pentagon Saturday and they have backup plans if they are turned away.

"I don't know what the outcome will be, but the worst-case scenario, if we don't all get arrested somehow, we will visit our brothers who are buried at Arlington National Cemetery, hang out, have a couple of shots with them, talk, cry and tell stories — just do our thing," he said.

McKuen said being denied the privilege of attending the Pentagon memorial service on Saturday feels like an insult.

"It's a huge slap in the face to the veterans and the first responders," he said. "Why? All we are doing is trying to find closure. We aren't protesting or anything. We just want to gather as brothers, shake hands and shed a few tears. That is all we are asking for."

Revisiting local 9/11 reaction


Then-Congressman Dave Obey was getting ready for a House of Representatives meeting when he learned of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon less than four miles away.

"I could see smoke billowing through the window," he said.

Like most Americans, Obey was stunned by the terrorist attack. Contacted that day by the Daily Press, Obey said the United States had entered a new age.

"The new threat is terrorism, not a nuclear warhead that may come 10 years from now and not Russia," Obey said in a phone interview from his Washington office. Like everyone else, he couldn't travel because air traffic had been shut down.

"Threats are in a bomb smuggled through an airport or a vial of toxin that gets dumped in a public water supply," he said.

Obey was one of several people the Daily Press interviewed in the immediate aftermath of the attack. Two decades later and again speaking from Washington, he still supports American efforts to hunt down those responsible for the attacks.

"I think we had an obligation to respond to bin Laden's attack. I think the initial actions to take him out were responsible, but we got waylaid into a continual war," he said.

Obey said this week that like the Russians before them, Americans got bogged down in Afghanistan, remaining there long after Osama bin Laden was finally tracked down and killed in Pakistan.

"There was broad support in the Congress and in the country for retaliating against bin Laden. I think the mistake that was made was that after (President) Bush went after Osama, they let the perpetrators of that act escape and at the same time, they started to go after Iraq," Obey said.

Thus the mission changed from one of capturing a small number of terrorists to attempting to install a new, friendly government, an exercise in nation-building that ultimately failed. In the end, Obey said the United States had to follow the example of the Russians, who ended their own expedition into Afghanistan after a bloody 10-year war.

As Obey was digesting the news in D.C., Ashland residents were gathering on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001 for a non-denominational memorial service at the Presbyterian-Congregational Church that attracted about 100 people who joined together to sing "Amazing Grace.

One of the ministers who conducted the service was the Rev. Darrel Robertson, who since has retired.

"Without a doubt, we simply wanted to offer a chance to grieve as a whole community together for this incredible loss of life," Robertson said in a phone interview this week. "The shock that that could happen was just overwhelming across the country. The loss of so many, including children, and the firefighters who went in and were still there when the buildings collapsed, that just created overwhelming grief throughout the country."

Robertson said that Americans needed to come together, much as they would for a funeral, as they grieved the losses of that day.

"We needed to call on the help that we all need, in terms of one who is greater than us and stands with us, even in the darkest of times," he said.

Robertson today isn't sure what lasting impact that service might have had, but he's certain it was needed at the time, allowing people to hang on to each other and their faith.

Robertson said 20 years later, everybody remembers where they were at the time they first heard of the 9/11 attacks.

"We remember and haven't forgotten it. There are remembrances every year on the date. I think like all things, with time, the pain of it all recedes, but not for the families who were directly affected, and lost a loved one. For the rest of us who live far away, it is still a painful and sad time in our nation's history."

Two decades after the nation united to get justice for the 9/11 attacks, there is great division on how the conflict in Afghanistan ended. Robertson said he was saddened to see the country so divided.

"Whatever our goals were, they kind of got lost in the shuffle," he said. "There is a lot of turmoil for lots of reasons, and that is sad," he said.

Obey agrees, and laments what he sees as a loss of both American prestige and American lives that have come with fighting a useless 20-year war.

"They paid a horrific price," he said.


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