Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Emergency & disaster management Hot topics
We remember

I was the deputy fire chief on 9-11 at Toronto Pearson and happened to be the acting fire chief that day.

September 7, 2011  By Fire Fighting in Canada

Fire Fighting in Canada asked fire-service personnel from across the country for reflections about 9-11, from personal anecdotes and memories to broader, all-encompassing stories of that fateful day. Here are some of their thoughts about and analyses of Sept. 11, 2011. 


Fire Chief Mike Figliola
Greater Toronto Airports Authority

I was the deputy fire chief on 9-11 at Toronto Pearson and happened to be the acting fire chief that day. I was summoned by the director of public safety to attend the Emergency Operations Centre. All he said was that we have a situation. Later that day, I drove down the runway; it was dead silence with hundreds of parked aircraft and North American skies closed. The world was in crisis and our lives changed forever.

Fire Chief Les Karpluk
Prince Albert, Sask.


I was watching the events unfold on television when the towers fell. I knew then that many firefighters paid the ultimate price. The loss of 343 firefighters on Sept. 11, 2001, continues to remind me that our profession is bigger than all of us. Borders may separate us but we are not separated by our desire to serve our communities with pride and professionalism. It’s been 10 years and the images are still vivid for me. We must remember the price paid on 9-11 and never forget the impact on their families. In their memory, we must continue to grow our profession and make it safer.

Lyle Donovan
Emergency Management Co-ordinator, Municipality of County of Victoria, N.S.

I had been asked to go to the Halifax Airport to do triage on the people on board the 44 aircraft that were forced to land in Halifax. As I was going through the people, one gentlemen was looking out one of the windows, he could see all the other planes parked on the runways when he said, “I don’t know what is going on, but whatever it is, it’s going to change the world.” For the most part, the people on the planes for the first little while had no idea what was happening, as we were not allowed to tell them. So that statement stuck with me as it is something that has changed the world.

Fire Chief Bryan Burbidge
King Fire and Emergency Services, Ont.

Aside from the devastation and the thoughts of losing so many innocent people and emergency-services colleagues that day and locally, there was an eerie haunt in the air for the remainder of that day plus several days later in the absence of air traffic overhead. We grow accustomed to the white noise of airplanes flying overhead when we live and work so close to an international airport that it is so noticeable when there is none.  

Fire Chief Brad Patton
Centre Wellington, Ont.

My job on 9-11 was to set up and prepare the EOC in Hamilton [Ont.]; the first thing I did was turn on the TVs and watch as the tragic events unfolded while setting up the room. As before, during and after 9-11, I am very proud of the fire service. FDNY did what they always do – save lives first and think about themselves second.

Fire Chief Trent Elyea
Collingwood, Ont.

For me, it’s the families left behind. Some, if not most, never had a chance to lay a loved one to rest. For those, there is a lifetime of a sense of being cheated.  Somewhere in heaven, God is sitting on a throne with 343 firefighters surrounding him all on bended knee. He watches over them as they watch over us.

Fire Chief Denys Prevost
Welland Fire and Emergency Services Department, Ont.

My thoughts on Sept. 11 are somewhat complicated. A friend of mine spent some time at Ground Zero just a couple of weeks after 9-11, assisting with rescue-tool training as part of his job with Hurst, and he brought me back a fist-sized chunk of concrete and a piece of reinforcing steel from one of the Twin Tower stairwells. These cherished mementos sit on top of my office bookcase next to a Code-3 FDNY 9-11 commemorative pumper another friend gave me. There isn’t a day that I do not see these things and reflect, if only briefly, on the events of that day. Even 10 years after, I find it difficult to watch video of the towers falling. It gives me a feeling of helpless dread, one that I have never otherwise felt in more than 30 years of active and sometimes very challenging fire fighting and rescue. So, 9-11 for me is like a bad memory. Even though I only experienced it vicariously, it has left a mark that will not go away.

Fire Chief Brent Boyle
Mira Road Volunteer Fire Department, N.S.

One of the things that stands out the most in my mind is the week after 9-11, a cruise ship docked in Sydney [N.S.]. We had a service on the wharf and some of the passengers approached me afterwards and proceeded to tell me that their sons were firefighters at Ground Zero. At the time of the terrorist attack, these people were already at sea. At the time of the service we had on the wharf, they had just learned that both their sons were safe, but that many of their co-workers had died. To have a hug and a handshake from the family of those firefighters is forever etched in my mind. Thousands of miles does not change the fact that we are all one family. I was privileged to have had those people share with us and that is one of my reflections of 9-11 that I will always cherish.

Cynthia Ross Tustin
Office of the Fire Marshal, Ontario

Whenever I see the news footage from that day, I remember being at the fire college. Everything stopped. Everything everywhere just stopped. We watched that horrible day live on CNN. And everyone, absolutely everyone, had tears in their eyes – tears of sadness and tears of pride – proof that even in the face of terror and overwhelming grief, absolutely nothing will stop a firefighter from being a firefighter. Courage is what stopped everything that day, not terrorism.

Firefighter Mark van der Feyst
Woodstock Fire Department, Ont.
(Cranberry Township Volunteer Fire Company, 1999 to 2002)

I was living in Pittsburgh and on that day I was at a building near the Pittsburgh airport for an inspection of a sprinkler system. When I was done, I noticed four traffic lanes of airplanes landing from four different locations, with numerous planes landing in succession. Thinking nothing of it, I drove back home and when I turned on the TV I discovered the reason why the planes were landing. About an hour later we were told about an airplane crashing in Somerset County, about a two-hour drive east. That plane flew directly over our township and could easily have crashed in our response area. Later that night, our fire department was asked by FEMA to put together a team to respond to either New York City or Somerset County. Our whole department volunteered to respond. The nation had rallied together that day with U.S. flags appearing on vehicles, buildings, front lawns and in people’s hands as a symbol of determination and freedom.

Fire Chief Brad Bigrigg
Caledon, Ont.

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was the manager of emergency preparedness and response for the Office of the Fire Marshal. I interrupted a senior staff meeting to inform them of what had occurred at the WTC and suggested that we should be making some notifications within the Ontario fire service. The response that I received was that I was “overreacting – it will turn out to be nothing.” I was assigned to the Provincial Operations Centre at about 10:45 Sept. 11, 2001. When I arrived in the POC, I was asked by one of the newer staff there what was really happening. The only response that I could think of at the time was, “the world as we know it has changed forever, now get to work.” We had multiple notifications to make while trying to evaluate incoming information and threat-assessment data.

Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder E.F.O.
Loveland-Symmes Fire Department, Ohio
Member-Board of Directors IAFC, NFFF and The September 11th Families Association

We all remember what we were doing that morning, and how it impacted our lives forever. We also watched with great grief and sadness what the families of those lost, have gone through ­– and still do. So, now what? To me, the terrorism aspect is a job for someone else. Sure, we have increased training and awareness on what to do – and what not do – prior to and when we are attacked. We have a local responsibility to be prepared on WMD and terrorism-related issues, but the prevention of an attack belongs to the folks we elect to protect us at the national level throughout North America. So what is our responsibility? The great American politician Tip O’Neill said all politics is local, and that applies to every fire department’s ability to operate in terror response, but, perhaps even more importantly, the day-to-day incidents to which we respond. The fires. The EMS runs. The crashes. The day-to-day stuff. So, in my opinion, the best way we can never forget is to train each and every day and to lead our fire departments each and every day so that we are at peak performance levels when the next attack occurs. By being at the top of our game day to day in training, command, control, operations, accountability, planning and related core functions, we cannot help but be as prepared as possible when terrorism strikes.
I’m not sure there is a better way to honour those who were murdered on 9-11.

Capt. Fred LeBlanc
Kingston Fire Department, Ont. President, OPFFA

I was in Brockville, Ont., that morning, preparing for a district meeting of OPFFA locals from eastern Ontario. I was then executive vice-president of the OPFFA. I recall then-president Henry Watson telling me that a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. We quickly proceeded to our meeting room and joined about 30 other firefighters and watched in disbelief. Although we had the natural instincts of fear and sorrow running through minds, we also shared a sense of pride witnessing the truly unselfish and heroic efforts of the firefighters and other emergency response personnel in New York and Washington that morning. I was particularly proud of our union’s (IAFF) efforts in the days that followed, assisting the families of our fallen and helping the FDNY locals cope with this unthinkable tragedy.

E. David Hodgins SBStJ, B.App.Bus: ES, CEM, P.Mgr
President & CEO, Tarrthail Consulting

A heart of gold has stopped beating,
A kindred spirit is at rest,
God broke our hearts to prove
He only takes the best.

Firefighter Chad Sartison
Priddis Fire Department, Alta.
Chair, Firefighters1st

When you need help you call a firefighter – it is what we have done since Ben Franklin told us to in 1736. None of the 343 souls who entered the towers on 9-11 realized they were going to become a part of fire-service folklore. Yet 343 of our bravest
faced a crucible of fire and heroism unimaginable by any measure, unimaginable even to a fellow firefighter. I had not yet had the honour of calling myself a firefighter on that fateful day in September, but at 30 years old on that day I learned what it meant to be a firefighter.

Stephen Fenner
Halifax Fire (IAFFLO268)
Vice-president, FDIC Atlantic

I will never forget Sept. 11, 2001, when the whole world came to a standstill and I lost 343 brothers and sisters of the FDNY. I felt sad and proud at the same time as I watched on TV the FDNY go in and not come out. I remember I was on duty the next day and all we did was watch the coverage, hoping and praying for our brothers and sisters. It is now 10 years later and I am still proud and honoured to be a firefighter, and I hope that should the time ever come, I will have the courage to do what each and every one of them did. You will always be in my thoughts and prayers and ride along with me on every run. God bless.

Peter Sells
President, NivoNuvo Consulting Inc.

That Tuesday morning 10 years ago, we had a recruit class in their final weeks at the Toronto Fire Academy and a full house of several hundred in the auditorium for an arson seminar. I was speaking with the division commander when he took a phone call from the fire chief. He turned to me, told me that the WTC had been struck by two airplanes, the city was on full alert, and ordered me to secure the academy. I had my staff lock all the doors, but the building – as an eerie microcosm of western society – was far from secure or in reality far from securable.

Collectively, and without any awareness, we had allowed our love of our essential liberties to blind us to our lack of safety, temporary or otherwise. Perhaps Benjamin Franklin was wrong about that after all. A few dozen men spent a few thousand dollars and paralyzed the globe, changing the airline industry forever, wreaking havoc with markets and causing economic losses estimated as high as $2 trillion.

In the short term at least, this represents the most lopsided victory in the entire history of human conflict. Not to recognize that we were on the receiving end of mankind’s greatest ass-kicking, and not to react, respond and reorganize accordingly, would have been a disservice to the firefighters, police officers, flight attendants, financial analysts, dishwashers and janitors who died on the job that morning.

Bob Simpson
CFD and NFR (retired)

Calgary firefighters joined in a memorial at our Olympic Plaza. There were thousands of people and everyone looked at us with tears in their eyes – crusty, hardened, seen-it-all firefighters joined them, with their tears. The fear and hopelessness felt in those last moments have been felt by most of us at one time or another in our careers – this is what makes the memory so painful, we know how they felt, what they thought, and most importantly, who they thought about in those last few moments. Loss of firefighters continues, almost always for all the same reasons.

My reflections become questions: Did/are we learning from these terrible losses? And are we operating at multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional situations today any better than we did that day?

Fire Chief Vince MacKenzie
Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L., President, NLAFS

On Sept. 11, 2001, I had just returned to my home when a relative phoned and told me to turn on the television for a big fire in New York. As I turned on the TV, I remember seeing the building and remarking immediately that that was no ordinary fire. I did not know that a plane had hit the building at that point, but my gut told me this was a dastardly event. As I watched the events unfold that morning with my then-four-year-old daughter, I remember she said, “Daddy, are you going to go to the big fire?” I remember telling her no, and trying to explain to a four-year-old why not, and all I was thinking of was the firefighters of New York and the hell their spouses and children must have been enduring as they watched it live.

At our Tuesday night training, we lowered an American flag on our flag pole to half staff, and left it there for weeks as the bodies were recovered. One of our volunteer firefighters was a graphic designer and he made up decals that said, FDNY Always Remembered, with crossed American and Canadian flag emblems, that we affixed to our apparatuses. They are still on the trucks today.

To say the fire service hasn’t changed from 9-11 is inaccurate. Words like terrorism, hazmat and CBRNE became the buzz. Even as small-town firefighters, we were learning about anthrax and the like. As we learned those skills, we became better prepared on an all-hazards approach, but one often wonders if another dastardly mind is not looking for ways to circumvent this all again. We can only do our duty and train, as we will be first out the gate for the next one as well. It was truly a day when the whole world came knocking on the door of Newfoundland, and left a mark on us all forever.

Fire Chief Kevin Foster
Midland, Ont.

The most memorable things that stick out for me are people’s reactions at the time. I was attending a seminar with other fire chiefs and recall someone stepping out of the room and returning with such a shocked look on their face and announcing the events. The session immediately broke, as everyone gathered around to watch on TV and I remember the disbelief as many began to pack their bags to return home or contact officials in their communities to help out where they could. I remember the thoughts for those on the aircraft and their families, the recognition that many firefighters would be lost as the collapse of the buildings occurred, and then the support of communities pulling together to hold memorials and collect/make gifts and donations. I am extremely proud of the profession for their actions and of the communities we serve for their support.

Fire Chief Harold Tulk
Kingston Fire and Rescue, Ont.

I was in the last weeks of my tenure as fire chief of Brockville Fire/EMS before going to Kingston. I was addressing the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association labour-relations conference members at the Royal Brock Hotel. A note was passed to me at the podium, marked urgent, which I read to the assembly. It described the terrorist acts taking place in New York City as we spoke.

The initial reaction of the audience was disbelief. Reality set in quickly and we adjourned to secure a television to get the details.

It did not take long for all of us to realize that our brother firefighters were in grave danger. With very little said, we all knew that in this business we have a duty to stay in as long as there is a chance to bring someone out. The images on the news broadcast grounded all of us and reminded us, without comment or fanfare, of what we are about in this profession.

Even though we were from separate countries and from various-sized fire services, we all knew what was happening before our eyes. The buildings collapsing seemed impossible and the deaths tragic. We had witnessed a terminal moment in history and in the fire services, and as similar as we may be, in many ways we would never be quite the same again.

The firefighters in those buildings were genuine heroes and we will never forget that. What a moment in time – one that will live in the memory of every firefighter in service at that time forever.

Firefighter/EMT Lee Sagert
Lethbridge, Alta.

With information sharing at our fingertips, and a global view of our world, 9-11 really opened the eyes of the fire service . . . We suddenly realized the fallout that can be placed on us when something tragic like 9-11 occurs. Suddenly, your department may be dealing with several jumbo airliners landing in your community as a result of air traffic shutdown. Although the events were on the east coast, the effects can land in your community, literally. Are we prepared?

Fire chief Lyle Quan
Waterloo Fire Rescue, Ont.

On that fateful day, I remember that I was attending a training course at another fire department, and when we heard that a plane had just flown into one of the Twin Towers, the magnitude of what was happening didn’t sink in until we got to the TV. After seeing what was happening in New York, I had to call home immediately to ensure that all was OK. It was at that point that we all realized we had became part of the world’s political and religious struggles – we were no longer immune to issues that were affecting communities (and people) halfway around the world. As such, life changed for many of us, whether we were part of the emergency services or not.

Fire Chief Tom DeSorcy
Hope, B.C.

I recall 10 years ago when I first heard the news at 0700hrs when I got up, was the realization of the date and commenting to myself how ironic it was that this occurred on a day with the date 9-11.

It did take a while to sink in what was going on until airports in Canada were put on alert. Even with a little tiny airpark we were advised locally and all of a sudden it became close to home. At that point, I had been a paid chief for 18 months but the fire service changed for me that day. All of the sudden, I was part of a different team and the rules of the game had changed.

Regional Fire Chief Cammie Laird
Clearwater Regional Fire Rescue Services, Alta.

I am confident most people in North America remember what they were doing on 9-11. I was the fire chief and director of disaster services for the Municipal District of Rocky View, Alta., at that time. That morning, I was driving into work and was listening to the radio station for various traffic reports, news, and a tune to hum to – just like any other day – while I thought about what I wanted to accomplish that day at work. When the radio announcer reported the first airplane had flown into the World Trade Center, I remember thinking that perhaps a Cessna must have collided with the building, and what a tragedy, and considered that the fog must be bad in New York and what a terrible call for the responders to attend to. A few minutes later the radio reported a second airplane collision into the towers. I arrived at work a few minutes after that and immediately searched the television news reports for any updates and soon came to realize what a horrible disaster was unfolding for our emergency services family in New York. I soon advised the CAO to notify our council that this event would have world repercussions and culminate in a lasting effect for our world as we then knew it.

Later, as the skies grew quiet, I was struck with the eerie sense that more was to come. Twenty-four hours later, we had opened a reception centre for the passengers of one of the grounded airlines in one of our churches and begun the task of gaining an understanding of the enormity of our task and the implications for our world. The world was forever changed that day. Emergency services providers make a difference, through persistence to meet our goals, resourcefulness to realize the next great idea, a keen understanding of team and co-operation, and enthusiasm to ensure success in our missions regardless of the obstacles.

I continue to be a proud member of an honorable profession – the fire rescue service – and value the strong links we have with our other emergency-services providers who keep making a difference, which is the greatest way we can honour those who have made such supreme sacrifices.

Print this page


Stories continue below