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Kentucky fire chief reflects on helping at ground zero after 9/11

Posted at 7:37 AM, Sep 11, 2020

CASEY COUNTY, Ky. (LEX 18) — On Sept. 11, 2001, the world stopped and stared in horror at television screens across the globe as the scene at the World Trade Center unfolded in New York City.

For so many, time stood still as they tried to grapple with what they were seeing crumbling to the ground on American soil. For others, it was only a matter of hours before they sprang into action.

"Once we found out what happening and we knew that it was a terrorist attack, within an hour I had started talking to the rest of the team," said former South Fork fire Chief Bill Callinan.

He asked his team, "'What do y'all want to do?' 'We need to go.' Everybody said, 'We need to go.'"

A team of 10 from South Fork quickly assembled, and by the evening of Sept. 11, they were en route to New York, sirens blaring nearly the whole way -- often being escorted by police in various states.

"We felt like we needed to contribute," said Callinan. "We felt Casey County has [to] contribute; we felt Kentucky needed to contribute. And what little we could do, that's what we wanted to do."

At that point in 2001, Callinan had been a firefighter for about 20 years but said nothing prepares someone for a sight like ground zero.

"It was something that you wouldn't believe if you didn't see it. I mean, all the dust and debris from all the buildings, including the towers, plus the buildings that were destroyed, was laying all over the vehicles that were parked in the parking lots in the street," he said. "There was some horrific stuff. I mean, there was like human stuff, you know, that it floated through the air and landed on these cars and in the streets."

But the sights were not the hardest part.

"You were walking through all this stuff. And then just getting excited about possibly finding somebody. They had a system where everyone on the bucket brigade if they had listening devices and whenever they thought they heard something, they'd blow whistle and then it was dead silence. I mean, complete silence; equipment shut off. Nobody talked. And, when they did find somebody -- firefighters, police -- when they put them in body bags, they'd drape an American flag over them," Callinan said.

Callinan said their group of 10, which included his wife, still have never sat down altogether to talk about their time at ground zero. But recently, he said he heard a few from his team applied for money through the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. Callinan also said he developed lung cancer.

"My wife ended up with kidney cancer. I just had lung surgery like a year and a half ago. And I don't -- I can't say it's from being down there. At the time, I was a pretty heavy smoker, you know. Then, one of our other members, he's just filed a claim and he's got a blood disorder and also cancer. And I mean, you can't say, I guess, you don't know where it comes from, you know. It could have been anything in life, I guess. But it just seems kind of strange how many people that were there about the same amount of years later ended up with a lot of the same symptoms."

During the 2020 pandemic and protests, nearly two decades since working the historic attack, Callinan said he has been spending time reflecting on what 9/11 meant and still means years later.

"Back then even after all the tragedy and all the deaths, the one thing that came out of it all of this was that this country was united," he said. "There was flags flying in their household, every business; every chicken coop. You know, it was just a united of all the people in this country. And we look at it back 19 years now, and there isn't such a thing going on anymore. You know, there was always the big thing on after 911 'we will never forget.' But, they have. I haven't forgotten but this country has forgotten. And that's sad. But, I was extremely proud to be an American back then. And I still am now but just that boost-up feeling. Everybody was flying flags. Everybody was united for what was going on. Now we're just burning the place down. You know, 19 years later, it's amazing, you know, how a few years can change things."