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New York City remembers valor of Black firefighters


A sad anniversary this week

By Kristina Dixon | Across Black America

This week marks 22 years since the 9/11 attacks that destroyed New York City’s iconic Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. Nearly 3,000 people were killed during the terrorist attack when four planes were hijacked and two flew into the towers, and one into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The fourth plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Penn.

Of the 343 firefighters who sacrificed their lives as first responders to the attack, 12 members of the Black Vulcan Society of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) were lost during rescue and recovery efforts. The firefighters’ names were Gerard Baptiste, Vernon Cherry, Tarel Coleman, Andre Fletcher, Keith Glascoe, Ronnie Henderson, William Henry, Karl Joseph, Keithroy Maynard, Vernon Richard, Shawn Powell, and Leon Smith Jr.

History of the Vulcans

Wesley Williams, founder of the Vulcan Society and the first Black battalion chief, established the society with more than 50 Black firefighters in 1940 because of issues of discrimination in the FDNY.

The Vulcans became known for their advocacy work in fighting discriminatory practices in the FDNY and fundraising for the NAACP, Urban League, and Harlem YMCA. By 1960, the Vulcan Society had 500 members.

The organization is going strong, although its headquarters in Brooklyn is under construction. Every year, the president and members invite the families of 9/11 firefighter victims to a Brooklyn memorial service to honor their sacrifice.

Capt. Paul Washington, former Vulcan Society president, said last year they are also doing a street renaming on a section of Monroe Street to honor fallen firefighter Powell. Washington recalled that most of the 12 Vulcan members who died were inside or right outside the Twin Towers when the structures collapsed.

“It’s up to us to keep the memory alive. They made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Washington.

“While the city may forget, the families don’t,” said Vulcan member and firefighter Greg Shepherd of Engine Company 234. “A lot of these people had kids and some of them are firefighters now. I bet you they never forgot, either. For us, it’s about helping the families. They’re our extended family.”

Vulcan Society President Regina Wilson—who returned to her leadership role earlier this year—shared her personal recollection of responding to the World Trade Center attacks with the AmNews.

She recalled waking up to a beautiful, sunny day during a house watch, with plans to train new colleagues. A loud sudden noise came out of the kitchen, which wasn’t unusual given firefighters’ predilection toward laughter. But the sound wasn’t joy. Wilson saw the news broadcast of the 9/11 attacks as it occurred. The firehouse was called to respond. It made it through the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel to get to Manhattan.

“When we got to the other side, you [almost] couldn’t see anything. [There were] abandoned rigs, we ran into people that were in distress, a number of women had an asthma attack and charcoal was on their face,” said Wilson.

The firefighters started guiding the people toward Brooklyn. Her boss ensured Wilson put her mask on. But as she hooked the straps across her face, everything went dark—covered in smoke. Wilson recalled praying.

When the smoke subsided, “We saw a lot of civilians, we saw other firefighters, but everybody was [in] distress,” said Wilson. “It was buildings on fire. We [saw] cars on fire. And then we just went into work mode.”

Wilson was one of the many Black firefighters who responded to 9/11. But after such efforts, she says the world never gave them their due.

“I think the public as a whole disrespected the efforts made by not only [Black firefighters] but the contribution of women,” said Wilson. “Most people, if you close their eyes and ask them what is the image of a firefighter, they will see a white man. The fact that the world focused in and visualized and interviewed and gave deals to and highlighted on TV—it was never a diverse field. We never knew about the 12 Black firefighters themselves on 9/11.”