Memories of Sept. 11 live with Grand Rapids police, firefighters

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For the firefighters and police officers who watched their own rush toward the Twin Towers never to return, memories of the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, are still vivid 20 years later.

The profound effect of the attacks reached far beyond New York, to cities across the country that sent first responders to help in the aftermath of the towers collapsing.

Among those who answered the call were Grand Rapids Police Department Lt. Pat Dean and Grand Rapids Fire Department Capt. Paul Mason. Here are their stories.

‘IT HITS YOU IN THE HEART’

Pat Dean’s blood runs NYPD blue.

The first seven years of his career as a police officer were spent patrolling the streets of New York, following in his late father’s footsteps. He came to Grand Rapids after meeting his now-wife, a Michigan native, in the mid-1990s and joined GRPD.

But the New York City Police Department remains the family business. His brother and sister are still on the force, just like they were 20 years ago.

So when the planes hit the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, Dean’s heart sank.

“Knowing that it was a Tuesday that they were on duty was just a helpless feeling being here,” Dean said.

By late afternoon on the 11th, Dean learned his brother and sister were OK. But the Brooklyn native began thinking of other old co-workers and friends.

“Who do I know that’s there? Your mind starts to wander, wondering who are you going to know? When’s the bad news coming?” Dean recalled. “I was immediately in that mindset: Hey, I need to get out there. I need to be with my family. But I also need to be part of what’s going on there.”

Then came the call for an old boss in the NYPD. A member of the department’s bomb squad died in one of the collapsed towers. Dean, who got his bomb squad training when he was with the NYPD, was asked to come back and help out.

He and now-retired GRPD Lt. Paul Warwick, also a member of the bomb squad here, got in the car and headed to New York, arriving in the middle of the night.

The lower tip of Manhattan was littered with debris and shrouded in smoke.

“I never seen anything like it. And I hope to never see anything like it again,” Dean said. “It hits you in the heart. You just know there’s so much loss of life. It was surreal. It was almost like watching a movie. But it was real life.”

Fires burn amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center September 13, 2001 days after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack. (U.S. Navy Photo by Jim Watson/Getty Images)

With member of the NYPD Bomb Squad searching the Trade Center debris for their lost brother, Dean and Warwick were put to work.

“The bomb squad from NYPD were assisting down at the site, trying to find their fellow officer that was lost. The city doesn’t stop. There were all sorts of calls, as you can imagine; everything was suspicious,” Dean remembered.

The skyline he once knew was gone. All around were the heartbreaking remnants of the attack. Then came news of personal loss.

Dean’s former NYPD partner Matthew Rogan, who had transferred to the fire department, was gone. So was another friend: NYPD Emergency Services Detective Joe Vigiano and his firefighter brother John were both killed.

“We always train for the worst. But this was something that I don’t think anybody could have imagined would happen,” Dean said.

Twenty years later, the memories of Sept. 11 and the days and weeks that followed are never far from Dean’s mind. He’ll never forget. But as time goes by and memories fade, he’s worried future generations may not understand about the sacrifices made that day.

“And that’s a shame. It’s something that should be fresh in everybody’s mind all of the time,” Dean said. “I know it is mine.”

‘EVERY FIREFIGHTER WANTED TO HELP’

Paul Mason was a young firefighter with just three years on the job on Sept. 11, 2001. While we all watched in horror as the Twin Towers collapsed, Mason, now a GRFD captain, and his fellow firefighters felt a deep, personal loss.

“As the towers fell, there was a palpable sense that many firefighters were dying,” Mason said.

It changed his perspective on the job.

“We became part of a global war,” Mason said. “We were on the front lines where terrorists could attack where we were. That was a huge game changer for us.”

There is something in the DNA of first responders that drives them to be where help is needed most. In the fall of 2001, that was New York. 

“Every firefighter, I think, had a desire to help and wanted to be there to help,” Mason said.

By the time Mason arrived in New York City, it was mid-October.

He and other GRFD members volunteered to work “the pile,” as the Twin Tower site became known, searching for victims, including some of the 343 New York City Fire Department firefighters who died that day, or in any other job that needed to be filled. By then, the FDNY was turning away crews because of an influx of help. So Mason and other GRFD members turned to other needs.

On Oct. 12, Mason was part of a GRFD contingent that brought a $115,000 in donations to support the families of fallen FDNY firefighters.

They then joined tens of thousands of firefighters from around the world in a march through the streets of New York. You won’t find any selfies of the visit. It wasn’t the place and time. But photos of a sea of blue dress uniforms coming together in a show of support are emblematic of a shared purpose.

“I felt more a part of a broad brother- and sisterhood of firefighters across America,” Mason said. “And more of a desire to be part of that.”

Thousands of firefighters from around the country marched in New York City on Oct. 12, 2001, to honor their brothers and sisters killed in the Sept. 11 terror attacks. (Courtesy Paul Mason)

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