Wave Wire Services
LOS ANGELES — On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Los Angeles firefighters Steve Hissong and Jarvis “Bubba” Willis spoke Sept. 8 about their experience on an Urban Search and Rescue Team deployed to Ground Zero, and how the experience has since taught them the importance of people coming together.
“What really etched in my mind was the thousands and thousands of people that were lined up on the sidewalk, and not only were they just crying, but they were also holding up little American flags and cheering how many people were there to help their city and the community itself,” Hissong said. “It was something that I’ll always remember, how people came together that day and actually, as hurtful as it was, as devastating as it was, they were there to cheer us on to see if we could do the best we possibly could.”
Willis noted the camaraderie among firefighters and search and rescuers, saying that “from this came this commitment, this partnership, this brotherhood — for lack of a better term — of us joining together and helping each other despite the differences in everybody, despite all these different things, none of those things mattered. We all came together, we helped and that’s what we need to focus on moving forward.”
Willis and Hissong both added that the experience taught them not to take anything for granted. Willis said that for him, one of the biggest takeaways “is not missing the opportunity, realizing from that event that at any moment things can go away.”
Hissong echoed that sentiment.
“For me, reflecting on the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 is a pretty important moment,” he said. “For me, it reflects the family and how important life is because it obviously is so vulnerable. In the last 20 years, I’ve really embraced the family as far as how much we spend the time together and everything else. But more importantly, how we work together, as far as a society,” he said.
Willis and Hissong, who is now an assistant chief at the department, were deployed on the evening of Sept. 11 on one of 27 Urban Search and Rescue Teams that were operating in the United States. They had been trained mostly for earthquakes and hurricanes and had never been deployed to anything even close to the magnitude of 9/11, Hissong said.
The 66 team members conducted methodical searches in hopes of finding survivors, but the team, which was stationed in New York for 14 days, only found human remains within the rubble.
Hissong said when they were first deployed on the night of Sept. 11 they were “very optimistic that we were actually going to possibly be able to save people, to be able to be on an incident that early on.”
Despite not finding survivors, Willis and Hissong said the team found comfort in being able to provide closure to victims’ families, when so many other families never had their loved ones recovered from the site.
Hissong recalled how families posted photos of missing loved ones on windows around Ground Zero, which “made it real for us as we were searching. … At first you’re thinking you’re just searching for a person, but the pictures all around it made it real.”
During the experience, the team, which had received critical incident stress management training, counseled each other to help everyone not get overwhelmed, Willis said.
“To be there for multiple days and we weren’t finding anybody alive, but we were finding some of the bodies that were lost, it actually helped us come together as a team to try to talk about it, and although there was frustrations that we weren’t finding anybody, we came together as a team saying that everyone in the nation wants to be here, and we’re the fortunate people that were actually … there,” Hissong said.
“I think one thing that we should all take away from it, is how we all help each other heal. And now that embracing us together is what helps us move forward and get through it,” Hissong added.