AHMEEK, Mich. (WJMN) — Twenty years ago, Michael Defina was working with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority — and that meant he was on the job when the nation came under attack.
“On Sept. 11, 2001, I was working that day at Washington National Airport and I was the first arriving fire battalion chief at the Pentagon after the aircraft crashed into the building,” Defina, now a captain with the Ahmeek Volunteer Fire Department in the Upper Peninsula, said.
“After watching the incident with the Twin Towers in New York City, we knew this was no accident,” he added.
The scene, he recalled, was surreal.
“A lot of smoke and fire obscuring the area,” Defina said. “Difficult to maneuver in. My first priority as the battalion chief was to try to make some order out of the chaos, ensure safe conditions for other arriving emergency responders and to extinguish the fires burning immediately outside of the building to create a safe means of egress for those survivors who were able to escape on their own.”
In the morning hours, Defina assisted with incident management where the aircraft struck the building. By the afternoon, he led a task force of five engine companies deep into the building for search and rescue operations.
“By the afternoon, there were no additional survivors that we could find within the building,” he said.
Still reeling from the tragedy after that first day, many responders like Defina had to return to the scene for more work to be done.
“On the morning of Sept. 12, we were assigned to work on the roof of the Pentagon,” Defina said. “There were many void spaces within the roof structure where fuel had gotten in there and a lot of items were burning. …We were told by military officials that the fire had to be stopped by a certain point in the building otherwise the country would shut down, literally.”
Defina spent 31 years with that department. He retired in 2018 and moved to the Upper Peninsula, where his wife is from. Using his career experience, he’s been able to give back to the Ahmeek village community.
“We certainly enjoy the area, love the people and have settled down and have made a home here,” said Defina.
Defina said he considers himself fortunate to be a 9/11 survivor.
“There were many harrowing experiences throughout the fire fight and the rescue attempt. And even though I have some long-lasting physical effects, some ailments due to exposures that I suffered at the Pentagon, I consider myself very fortunate based upon the fact that 343 firefighters lost their lives that day at the World Trade Center,” Defina said. “It was certainly a humbling experience and you no longer take for granted things like your freedom and you appreciate what you have and your family that much more.”