Two of Concord’s first responders recall Sept. 11 attacks ‘like they were yesterday’

  • Concord Deputy Fire Chief Sean Brown reflects on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks at the Central Fire Station in Concord on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/10/2019 5:14:43 PM

It was a perfect morning, weather-wise, in Salt Lake City, 18 years ago today, when Dan Andrus learned we were under attack.

Just like it was here, and just like it was in New York City. Blue sky. Gentle breeze. A late-summer chill, warmed by a sun that had nowhere to hide.

“I was driving to work,” Andrus, chief of the Concord Fire Department, said Tuesday in his office on Horseshoe Pond Lane. “I heard about it on the radio and figured it was a small plane.”

We all thought that. At least at first, after Flight 11 smashed into the north tower at the World Trade Center. Andrus was the fire marshal in Salt Lake City back then on Sept. 11, 2001. He worried about his hometown staging the Winter Olympics, scheduled for five months later.

Would a plane crash into a stadium packed with thousands of people?

“We were acutely aware of the possibility,” Andrus said. “There was a lot of pressure to cancel.”

Sean Brown, now one of Concord’s two deputy chiefs, was here, a young firefighter working at the Manor Station. He thought the same thing as his current boss did, that a small plane accidentally hit one of the towers. A tragedy, sure, but that’s it.

“I saw the first plane and thought it’s New York City, it’s bad, but they’ll be able to handle it,” Brown said.

Once that second plane hit the south tower, however, Brown knew. We all knew. We saw it on TV, saw the towers imploding and the dust rising and the smoke billowing down city streets like some sort of monster in a bad horror movie. We watched all day, all night.

Meanwhile, a pair of firefighters – Brown and Andrus – went to work.

Brown’s baby face belies the fact that he’s 45 and celebrated his 24th anniversary with the Concord Fire Department this week. His office is also in the administration building, on Horseshoe Pond Lane.

As one of 28 national task force leaders for Urban Search and Rescue, he recently spent 10 days in Florida and Georgia, helping in the aftermath of Hurricane Doria.

He was new to Urban Search 18 years ago. So he was sent to headquarters in Beverly, Mass., where he served as a liaison working the phones to update families about their loved ones, the rescue personnel sent to Ground Zero.

Before he left his Concord home that day, before cell-phone cameras, his wife snapped a few shots of him with a disposable camera, unsure if she’d see him again.

“After the second plane hit, everything started to unfold,” Brown said. “Would there be more attacks? With the technology back then, there was a lot of uncertainty for these families. It took a while for me to realize how much this meant to them when I’d call.”

He sat in his office, next door to Andrus’s, with framed photos and drawings on the wall showing a monster fire in Chelsea, Mass., where Brown grew up, and a rescue operation on the frozen lake at White Park.

He knew firefighters who died at the World Trade Center, from Urban Search and Rescue and from fire stations in New York City. He knew rescue personnel who died years later after inhaling toxic debris.

“Some of them died from crazy cancers,” Brown told me. “I had a friend from Hyannis who died from pancreatic cancer. I know a lot of guys who have breathing problems. That day continues to kill people. The dying did not stop on that day.”

Meanwhile, Andrus was in Salt Lake City, where he worked for 29 years before joining the team in Concord. On Sept. 11, he was working for the Emergency Operation Center.

He heard on the radio about both planes, the first collision making him think about a freak accident, the second about a day that could change the world.

And it did.

“I heard about the second plane while I was driving across the University of Utah campus,” Andrus said. “My daughter had just started first grade, and we decided not to say anything to her.”

Beyond the World Trade Center, the Pentagon had also been hit by a hijacked plane, while a fourth had crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers had boldly rushed the cockpit and tried to regain control.

“The information was coming together,” Andrus said.

And that meant attention turned to the Winter Olympics, scheduled for February of 2002. Officials wondered if the Games should be canceled. Andrus credited Mitt Romney, the president and CEO of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee at the time, with keeping the Games on track.

“We decided to put on the best Olympics ever, because we needed it at the time,” Andrus said.

Asked if the mission had been accomplished, Andrus said “yes” without skipping a beat. “I wasn’t a huge Romney fan, but his words were inspirational.”

As Brown and Andrus recounted their thoughts and experiences from 18 years ago, both shifted their eyes away from me, to other areas in their office, to nowhere special.

They saw things, remembered things. Andrus’s mother had died in her sleep from a heart attack three months before Sept. 11, prompting his father to tell him, “I miss your mother, but I’m glad she didn’t live to see this day.”

We did. Andrus began sniffling, his eyes becoming moist. He knew the exact number of firefighters, 343, who died in those two towers.

“The numbers kept going up,” Andrus said. “Every year, that day still grabs me. “I remember it like it was this morning.”

They remember a clear day, 18 years ago, in New York City, Salt Lake City and here in Concord.

“It was gorgeous that morning,” Andrus said.

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