Preserving the Perishable: Sharing the Stories of the Fallen
I recently had the opportunity to assist with our local September 11th memorial service. This was being included as part of a more significant annual history-based event in my hometown. As I began identifying speakers for the event, I realized that for the first time, I was approaching a whole generation that had no personal memory of the events that unfolded that day in 2001. A whole generation now exists where their only knowledge of the tragedies that day is based on previous generations and their abilities to capture and preserve history. An entire generation now exists that needs to be educated on the events of that day versus living it out like the vast majority of us.
The loss of life that day needs to be remembered each year to reflect on the sacrifices of both firefighters and civilians that day. On that day on American soil, no greater loss of life existed since the Civil War Battle of Antietam. Firefighters and other brave heroes saved countless lives and, in the end, sacrificed their own. Furthermore, we witnessed selfless, heroic acts by survivors to aid and rescue injured and trapped individuals.
Recording the events of September 11th were aided by technology and the magnitude of the incident. Real-time video and the 24-hour news cycle helped memorialize the events of that day and subsequent documentaries and publications further anchored the days that unfolded. Many of us witnessed the collapse of the towers, the burning Pentagon, or the crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, via live television newscasts. We watched it unfold live, not as it was reported the next day in the local newspaper.
What about that new generation? How will they process September 11th in our history? They can only build their thoughts on September 11th via photography or a video clip. Without adequate documentation and preservation of that tragic historical event, this new generation would be left to learn of September 11th by the accounts and recollections of others that, unfortunately, with time would begin to fade, and as those memories fade, so would the sacrifices of the fallen. This is similar to the experience many of us had when learning of World War II only after many veterans had passed taking their accounts of their service with them. We were left with only the recorded history. In his book, WTC: In Their Own Words, Firehouse Editor Emeritus Harvey Eisner was a master at connecting their stories in his 100 plus oral history interviews related to September 11, 2021, with pictures in his book.
This year, the 20th anniversary, is a time to reflect on the sacrifice of the fallen that day and the need to preserve the history of the fire service and fire protection disciplines so that future generations can glean from our knowledge without needing to suffer our losses. The greatest honor we can pay to the fallen is our unwavering commitment to never forget their stories.
In these blog articles on preserving the perishable, I have repeatedly mentioned that if you are part of the fire service or fire protection disciplines, you have a responsibility to preserve its history. It may not be a fallen brother or sister you are documenting or even a large fire. Maybe it's just that old firefighter, past their prime, who has left a lasting impression on many next generations. Now would be a great time to begin documenting history from their perspective through oral history interviews; what better way to honor an individual than to show them that their service mattered and it's worth preserving for future generations.
The National Fire Heritage Center was founded on the principle of preserving the perishable history so that "we never forget" the efforts and sacrifices of so many. We remember that day and are committed to serving as an educational resource so others may learn of it in years to come. We are committed to keeping the stories of our fallen brothers and sisters alive and, when possible, in their own words.
Our continued respect and gratitude for the fallen and continued prayers for those they left behind on that tragic day. May our fire family continue to heal while preserving the memories and stories of the fallen.
FDNY Assistant Chief Gerard Barbara looks up at both World Trade Center towers as each burns after being struck by terrorists using jets to attack the buildings. Chief Barbara and 342 other firefighters died when towers collapsed on September 11, 2001.
Cover photo by David Handschuh.
Cover design by J.C. Suares.