Local firefighters remember sacrifice with each call

Published 12:09 am Sunday, September 11, 2011

ERIC SHELTON/THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Local firemen, from left, Thomas McGinty, Lt. Dusty McIlwain, Battalion Chief Aaron Wesley, Eddie Ray and Michael Anderson say they still think about the sacrifice of New York firefighters on Sept. 11 as they respond to local calls. Ray is the chief of the Foster Mound Volunteer Fire Department, and Anderson works with him; the other men work for the Natchez Fire Department.

Still today, when the buzzer sounds or a call comes in to suit up and head to a fire, local firefighters admit the sacrifices of New York and Washington, D.C., co-workers they never knew are rarely far from their minds, hearts and fears.

“It’s always there, knowing they were there fighting and putting their life on the line,” said Michael Anderson, a firefighter with Foster Mound Volunteer Fire Department.

Anderson became a firefighter in 2001, shortly before 9/11. Ten years later, on the anniversary of the terrorist attacks that forever changed America’s view of firefighters, Anderson knows he’s a part of the family.

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“We’re all one big fire-fighting family across the nation,” he said. “When we lose a firefighter, it’s like losing a family member.”

Foster Mound Volunteer Fire Chief Eddie Ray became a volunteer firefighter in 2002. Ray said he became a firefighter so that he could serve his community as he served his country in the Army. He said 9/11 greatly affected him as a firefighter.

“When I saw the firefighters walking out of the buildings and coming out of the rubble covered in soot and dust and the empty helmets of the firefighters who didn’t make it out — to honor their memory, that’s why I serve,” Ray said.

Natchez firefighter Thomas McGinty, 21, has only been a firefighter for a year and a half. He said the sacrifice that the firefighters made on 9/11 brought firefighters across the country into the nation’s line of sight.

“Normally, it’s one guy in one town, and you never hear about it,” he said.

McGinty was in the sixth grade when the 9/11 attacks took place. He watched the towers collapse on a television in his classroom.

“Seeing those planes hit and the buildings fall and knowing there were people inside, it just sent chills down everyone’s back,” he said. “Everybody took a hurt that day. From the military to janitors at schools to bankers and homeless people.”

Dusty McIlwain has been a Natchez firefighter for 13 years. He had just gotten off work and was standing in the kitchen as he watched the towers fall.

“Everybody felt something that day,” he said sitting on the front of a fire truck at the Natchez Central Fire Station. “We all had anger and pride and all different emotions mixed in. There probably wasn’t anyone of us that wasn’t willing to go to New York and help any way we could.”

Natchez Fire Marshal Aaron Wesley has been a fireman almost 30 years. He said 9/11 was a reality check for him.

“It made you think if it can happen to them, it can happen to you,” he said.

Sept. 11 also brought about additional training for firefighters. Wesley said Natchez firefighters go through more training and mock drills now and are better equipped and better prepared to deal with hazardous materials and other threats during fires.

Natchez Fire Chief Oliver Stewart said 9/11 made him take his job more seriously and made him want to be more cautious.

“It makes you think about your family and what they would have to go through if something like that was to happen to me,” he said.

McIlwain said he does see more appreciation for firefighters after 9/11.

“With a job like this, it’s nice to have someone come up and say thank you,” he said. “We don’t fight fires on the same scale they did, but we’re still willing to give the ultimate sacrifice that they gave.”