Many survivors of September 11, 2001 tell the story of running away from the fire, smoke and debris of the World Trade Center’s twin towers, but it’s not every day that you hear the story of those who ran toward it, especially not the story of 9/11's women firefighters.
Regina Wilson was one of many women first responders who risked their lives in an effort to save others.
“We got dispatched out to go to the Trade Center, so we went down there via the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel,” she reflects. “When we first got dispatched out, nobody kind of understood, or knew what was going on.”
Wilson had just been relieved of her night shift duties at the Engine 219 fire station in Brooklyn, New York when she was told that she had been hired for overtime that morning. Little did she know that the overtime shift would become the biggest test of her endurance as a firefighter.
In preparation for the day shift, Wilson sat down to have breakfast in the firehouse kitchen. As a colleague flipped through the television channels, they witnessed the first plane crash into the World Trade Center. Almost immediately she was dispatched to report to the towers.
In disbelief, she and the firefighters rushed to their fire truck and headed toward Manhattan. As they drove through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel the structure forcefully shook. The North Tower, 1 World Trade Center, fell to the ground but not knowing what happened, Wilson and her entourage thought the tunnel had collapsed.
“We thought we were going to have to dig our way out of the tunnel and we started to take all of our equipment off of the fire truck, extra oxygen and the emergency medical bags because we weren’t sure what we were going to get ourselves into,” she says.
As they walked toward the end of the tunnel, they managed to see glimmers of light, but the light was soon darkened by the chaos that surrounded them.
Incapable of transporting anyone, Wilson and her team directed victims toward the tunnel where there were no people, no cars, and no activity — the “eeriest thing” she says that she has ever experienced.
Still not knowing what happened, they proceeded.
“It was crazy for me because I’m so used to: If I see the building on fire, I have to run to the building and put the fire out, but it was so much fire everywhere. It was just not one place where you could ... focus your attention,” she says.
They noticed fire trucks, but the rigs were abandoned and some destroyed. Then, a large boom sounded. “We’re under attack! We’re under attack!” Wilson says someone yelled. Then the second tower collapsed.
“Keep going. Run. Run. Run,” her boss instructed her and the other firefighters. The group ran back to their fire engine parked only five blocks away from the towers, and as they quickly put on their oxygen masks Wilson looked back only to see “black smoke, with flames in the smoke.”
It wasn’t long before the black smoke encompassed them, too.
“It got completely black and we were sitting there for what felt like forever. At that point, I just got content with dying because I didn’t know if the buildings were going to fall on me. I didn’t know if people on the ground were going to be shooting at me,” she says.
Thankfully, Wilson’s life did not end that day. She headed back out and she and her team started to look for those who needed help.
"... Knees were sticking up out of the ground, but the rest of the body was covered up. You’d see a partial head and a hand. Not finding anybody alive, that was the most frustrating thing to me,” she says.
The rescue and recovery missions had begun and almost everyone was dead.
“I think that day gave me a true, clear understanding of my obligation and what it really, really means to be able to have to sacrifice. My job means giving it all and not hesitating about it because if you are hesitant about it, or you weren’t really sure if that was your calling, 9/11 was the time to let you know whether or not this was the job for you,” she says.
As Wilson reflects on the day she lost seven colleagues from her Engine 219 firehouse where she still works today, she hopes that 10 years later, this September 11, all those who sacrificed their lives will be remembered.
Over the years she says that men, and particularly white men, have only been the face of rescue, recovery and search efforts on September 11, but that’s not true.
“I think one of the biggest things that I hope for is not even so much as an African-American woman, but as a woman, period, that people will be able to see our own personal sacrifices, and that history will show that men were not the only protectors of the city, but there were women there, too,” she says. “We were here trying to serve our country. We were there trying to protect our neighbors and our neighborhoods. I think that I don’t want history to exclude that in the things that have been done with Ground Zero.”
Out of slightly over 11,000 female firefighters nationwide, Wilson serves as the only one in her firehouse. In her now 12 years of being a firefighter, at age 42, she says that September 11 gave her a true understanding of altruism and understanding of why she does what she does.
“It showed me how selfless you have to be, how much you put other people before yourself. A lot of these first responders put strangers before their families and it just gave me the true essence of what it means to really love people. I think that was like the deepest, to me, moment of clarity during 9/11,” she says.
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(Photo: Courtesy Regina Wilson)