Former Fire Chief James Stanton, 79, a U.S. Navy veteran who was in Vietnam between 1964 to 1968, started his fire service career at the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department one year after an honorable discharge. He dedicated a lifetime of service to Montgomery County — 52 years to be exact.
But nothing could have prepared him for September 11, 2001.
“We didn’t know where we’re going or what we were going to do, but we knew that the country was in a crisis,” Stanton told Capital News Service.
On that day 20 years ago, Deputy Chief Mike Kelly stood by Stanton’s side in a staff meeting inside Station 5 on Connecticut Avenue, all watching in horror as United Airlines Flight 75 flew into the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York.
Their meeting abruptly ended. Shortly after, hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the western wall of the Pentagon, killing all 64 passengers and crew as well as 125 others who were inside the building.
Stanton and Kelly immediately went to work, trying to call their fellow volunteer firefighters to the station. When the reinforcements arrived, they simply waited on standby.
“A lot of people ran to the sites. We did not do that,” Stanton said. “We didn’t self-dispatch anybody there. We staffed up, we were going to take what came on, because frankly, we didn’t know what was gonna happen.”
Finally, a call came through — around 6 p.m. that same evening. A duty operations chief contacted Stanton, requesting additional support: Tower 705, a 100-foot-long aerial ladder truck.
Stanton assigned an ambulance and command officer to accompany their crew on the ladder truck, which could carry no more than six. Four were supposed to go in the ambulance.
“They’re ready to go out the door, I open the back door handles of the ambulance and there were eight people in there,” Stanton recalled, chuckling. “I just closed the door.”
One way or another, the entire Kensington department was determined to get dispatched to the damaged Pentagon — even if they were “going to sneak in,” Stanton said.
Roads were still jammed: a journey to the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense — 13 miles away — had been bogged down in traffic.
“When we got there, the fires were mainly out,” the former fire chief remembered.
Tower 705 still sprang into action, scaling the 71-foot-tall Pentagon.
“I was always proud of the people, but they really stepped up. Everybody wanted to help,” Stanton added. “They would have gone to New York, they would have gone (earlier) to the Pentagon if we let them.”
Even after the fires had been snuffed out and the debris cleared, Kensington’s Fire Department members stood out in front of their firehouse for an entire week, raising $35,000 for New York City firefighters and their families.
Eight years after the deadly terror attack at the Pentagon, Steven R. Semler, 76, a former KVFD president, was appointed by the department’s board to chair the KVFD 9/11 Memorial Committee. He applied for pieces of metal from the September 11th Families’ Association, a nonprofit tasked to distribute remnant artifacts once the metallurgical testing of structural steel from the World Trade Center had been completed.
“I saw that as a wonderful opportunity to try to get the piece of metal because we were attached to 9/11, in that our people responded to the Pentagon,” Semler told CNS.
Once their application had been properly filed, “it languished,” Semler revealed, until he personally spoke with Lee A. Ielpi, president of the September 11th Families’ Association. Ielpi was a highly-decorated retired FDNY member who lost his 29-year-old son and fellow firefighter, Anthony, on 9/11. He spent nine months searching for his body at Ground Zero, later contracting cancer in 2006.
“And I told him, ‘Not good enough. I don’t want a piece of metal that looks like it came out of Home Depot,’” Semler said. “‘I need something that captures the scarred twisting fire hell of the inferno of that day.’”
Semler’s blunt approach generated an invitation to visit Lower Manhattan’s “sacred ground” — Ground Zero — and the two airplane hangars located at the John F. Kennedy International Airport where the World Trade Center artifacts were kept.
Semler said he picked out an “unwieldy piece of one ton, 16-foot-tall artifact metal.” It was fastened to the flatbed of a borrowed trailer and transported by Keith Golden and Ernesto Moretti, two KVFD lifetime department members. The steel was stored inside Station 21 in Aspen Hill.
“We had the metal, but we didn’t have the resources to build Memorial Park,” Semler admitted.
The late Steve Heidenberger stepped forward. Owner of Heidenberg Construction, Inc., he donated construction and building materials for the planned memorial.
Heidenberg’s brother, Thomas, lost his wife, Michele, 52, on United Airlines Flight 77. She was a senior flight attendant.
Ground was broken on Kensington’s 9/11 Memorial Park in 2011.
Chris Van Hollen, then a congressman representing Maryland’s 8th District, participated in the groundbreaking. Now Sen. Van Hollen, he’s scheduled to speak at the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department’s annual ceremony this weekend — a decade after the groundbreaking.
“I think it is fitting that they have a memorial at their fire station,” Van Hollen told CNS in an interview. “They are sort of our sentinels, who are ready to respond to protect our local communities.”
“For the first time many Americans realized that two big oceans did not protect us from this kind of terrorist attack. Americans did come together, in a great spirit of unity,” the senator added. “We were resilient, we would persevere and we would make sure the country came together in the aftermath of those terrible attacks.”
Two decades later, the nation is in a different place. Intensifying partisanship and political divisiveness culminated in the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol.
“You fast forward to January 6, and instead of an external attack on the United States, we had a domestic attack on our Capitol and our democracy,” Van Hollen said. “And that, obviously, was a symbol of incredible disunion in the country and polarization.”
A member of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Van Hollen is concerned with the rise of domestic terrorism.
“I do very much fear that today, the much greater threat to our democracy is not an external terrorist threat,” Van Hollen said. “We need to recognize that while we came together in the aftermath of 9/11, sadly, we witnessed a huge amount of division in the country; and, of course, that was most evident on that day that will live in infamy, which is Jan. 6.”
As the nation mourns the loss of 2,977 lives — and counting — in New York, Washington and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Van Hollen said he hopes the country can come together and “rekindle a little more of that spirit of unity” in the future.
“If you look at where we are today, we are obviously cleaved by these deep divisions,” Van Hollen said. “We should work to recapture that spirit of unity that brought us together in the aftermath of that terrible tragedy and that attack.”
This article was originally published on CNSMaryland.org on Friday, September 10, 2021.