When Prince died in April, I asked the older adults in the memoir classes I lead to write about someone they didn’t know personally whose death made them really, really sad. Mel Washburn spent years as a dedicated firefighter before receiving his J.D. from the University of Wisconsin. I was very moved by his essay, and he generously agreed to let me share it here with Safe & Sound blog readers on the 15th anniversary of 911.
Memoir: Mourning someone I didn’t know
by Mel Washburn
Twenty years ago, the deaths of my parents left me with a hollow feeling that lasted for years. And nowadays the death of a friend makes me sad for weeks, whether we just met recently or we were friends from long ago.
But the death of a celebrity, such as Princess Diana or the pop singer Prince, hardly affects me at all. I didn’t know that celebrity. We had no personal connection of any sort. I can open the newspaper any day of the week and read the obituary of some ordinary person whose life story has more meaning for me than that of the Princess or the Prince.
NY Times, September 23, 2001, with photos of first responders who lost their lives.
Only once has the intersection of celebrity and personal tragedy really affected me — this was the death of 340 New York firefighters in the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.
Before they died, they were just ordinary men with ordinary jobs. When they died, however, they became celebrities. For months after their deaths, the media published their photographs, reported on their funerals, interviewed their friends and families, and talked about the circumstances of their deaths.
All through October and November and December, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Their photographs, in particular, fascinated me. The New York Times published page after page of them in columns and rows, little one-by-three pictures of their heads and shoulders, each of them in uniform, usually wearing their uniform caps. They were young or middle-aged. Most of them were trim, but some were heavy-set. A lot of them wore the mustache that, for many firemen, is like a part of the uniform. They looked like the guys I used to work with when I was a fireman.
On September 11, the first airplane struck the towers at the time when the firemen were changing shift. Many of the men who had been going off duty put on their turnout gear and climbed onto the rigs to ride to the scene with the on-duty shift. They had no idea what they were getting into.
Fires in high-rise buildings are usually contained to one floor. If people die, it’s usually from smoke inhalation. It’s usually not firemen, who are trained and equipped to deal with heavy smoke. And high-rise buildings don’t fall down. When firemen die in a collapsing building, that building is usually two or three stories tall.
These guys didn’t expect to die on 9/11. They expected to climb a lot of stairs and rescue some civilians and maybe, at worst, fight a really nasty fire in really greasy black smoke. They didn’t think it would be easy, but they thought it wouldn’t be much different from fires they’d fought before.
Fate played a really dirty trick on those guys. To this day, I feel sad and hollow when I think of them. I’ve never felt this way about any other public event. I probably never will.