LAFD History – The 9-11 Attack on the World Trade Center and the Impact on the Emergency Responders and Families

August 31, 2018

September 11, 2001 reinvigorated America’s gratitude for all firefighters’ efforts. In response to the terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, FEMA activated the LAFD CA-TF 1 (California Urban Search & Rescue Task Force 1) with 70 members and a Critical Incident Stress Management Team (CISM). The military aircraft transporting our US&R team was the first aircraft in the sky after the attack. Their mission included search and rescue, body extrication, and assistance in the use of canine search teams. The CISM mission evolved into a completely unprecedented Firefighter Assistance Program, which was delivered at and near ground zero as well as other sites. Working with many other agencies for the first-time, FEMA honored the combined efforts by making the teams the first FEMA sponsored program in the history of CISM. Several LAFD Officers were also sent as a part of the Incident Support Team for the Task forces sent to the disaster.

The following story was written by Father Christion Van Liefde for the 2001 Issue of the Fireman’s Grapevine. This is his personal story of his experience. I added the photos to the article for this publication.
Frank Borden


“Dearest Sisters and Brothers,

As most of you know, I had the privilege of going to New York with a team of about 100 firefighters from our Los Angeles Fire department. I say privilege because it was that, a privilege for me to represent our department and our church in this very difficult situation. I’ve had a chance to speak to many of you about this experience, but I wanted to send this out to everyone on my list, so you’re all aware of what happened to me.

Like most of you, I was shocked and speechless as I watched the news that morning and saw the collapse of the Twin Towers and the attack on the Pentagon. Our fire department received a call from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and preparations were made to send our LAFD USAR (Urban Search & Rescue) Task Force to New York. These are a group of about 70 firefighters who have been specially trained in search and rescue in collapsed buildings. Within about 12 hours, they were on their way to New York via the US Air Force transport planes.

On Wednesday, September 12, I received a call from our fire department asking me if I could go to New York to assist with CISM (Critical Incident Stress Management). This is a fancy word for counseling people who have gone through a serious emotional trauma. With the support of the other priests in the parish, I was able to clear my calendar and make myself available. On Thursday, September 13, our CISM team (23 chaplains and counselors from our department) went to Los Angeles Airport to go to New York. We were actually on the plane and ready to go, but the flight was cancelled because the airports in New York were shut down again. We finally got a flight out on Saturday, September 15, and arrived in New York about 6:00PM.

All together I spent one entire week there, returning on Saturday, September 22. During that week, I saw the worst and the best that we as God’s children can do. The worst was obviously the incredible destruction in New York. Ground Zero actually covers 4-6 square blocks and the debris is 10 stories high. When I first stood before “The Pile”, I could hardly move or speak. The sight was so incredible, so overwhelming. We ended up spending 12 hour shifts at Ground Zero and I spent 4 shifts there. During that time, I had the opportunity of talking to 300-400 firefighters, primarily from New York, but from all over the country. I even had a chance to talk with a special search tem from France. They came with their specially trained dogs to search for survivors. Sadly, after about the first 24 hours, there were no more survivors.

I want to highlight one experience that I had. I spent about an hour talking to a retired captain from the New York Fire Department. He had retired about 2 years ago after 35 years as a firefighter. We sat there and he cried in my arms because he had 2 sons who were missing. It was a heartbreaking experience to sit and listen to him. I found the New York firefighters very appreciative of my presence. About 90% of them are Catholic, Irish and Italian and they were so glad that a priest was there, a chaplain who understood what they were going through. You might have heard that their chaplain, Fr. Michael Judge, was killed in the collapse while blessing a firefighter who had just died. He was kneeling beside him, praying over his body, as debris came down and killed him. WHAT MORE POWERFUL EXAMPLE OF WHAT PRIESTHOOD IS ALL ABOUT!!! I heard a lot of confessions during those hours there, I saw a lot of tears and a lot of courage. Much has been said lately about the courage and bravery of our firefighters. I’ve always known that, and I am proud and humbled to be able to serve as a chaplain.

One of the other things we were able to do is visit some of the fire stations in New York and talk to the firefighters there. There are 60 fire Stations in New York that lost someone, some stations lost as many as 12-15 people. I visited one station that lost 7 members. Engine 23 in Manhattan. They invited me into their station and the 7 families were there, hoping that someone would be found alive. We had a little impromptu prayer service, lots of tears and lots of hugging. I spoke with one young lady whose fiancé was missing. They were supposed to be married on September 22 but in her heart, she knew that he was gone.

My prayer is that we may all have the faith and the courage we need for the difficult decisions ahead. We cannot let hate enter our hearts, we cannot allow ourselves to become the kinds of monsters who caused this pain. For then, they have truly won, they will have changed us to become like them. As a nation, we are hurt and angry. But let us not lose our souls and become that which we have grown to hate. We really need to ask God for grace, strength, and guidance.

While I was there, I also had the great blessing of spending an hour with my niece, Kristen who lives in New York. She’s doing fine and the family whose children she cares for is surrounding her with love and goodness. When we spoke, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do, but I trust that God will guide her to the right decision in her life.

Well, that’s about it. I’m back home, safe and sound, and the parish is as busy as always. I thanks God that he gave me the strength and the wisdom that I needed. It was really a privilege to be able to go to New York and serve the FDNY and the people there. Let us continue to pray for each other that the good Lord will guide us through these difficult times.

“We will never forget the 343!!”

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