“This is our Pearl Harbor. When I went to school, I only knew of Pearl Harbor because it was taught to me in history. This is what 9/11 is becoming now. A lot of people are forgetting about it and we shouldn’t.” ‘Never Forget’ appears on screen and then fade to black.
These were the words Sue Herr articulated and the sights seen in the final seconds of a 10-plus minute 9/11 remembrance video, produced by West Point Public Affairs, shown to cadets in the Cadet Mess Hall on Friday and available to the West Point community to watch on YouTube.
The words were powerful because Herr lived the experience while working in Tower Two of the Twin Towers on that fateful, clear blue-skied Tuesday morning 19 years ago. Today, she is a purchasing agent with the Office of the Directorate of Intercollegiate Athletics at West Point. She was among six individuals who described either their 9/11 story or why they decided to come to West Point from this generation’s day of infamy.
A day now known as Patriot Day, it is a United States national observance that honors the memory of those who were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that killed 2,977 people, including 343 FDNY fireman at the Twin Towers in New York City.
At the U.S. Military Academy on Patriot Day, the video was one of several events that occurred on post to remember the victims of 9/11. Events included the running of the American flag by cadets around West Point, a two-minute sound of sirens by the West Point Fire Department at 8:46 a.m., the time when the first plane hit Tower One, and volley shots by the Military Police Honor Guard. The Corps of Cadets also ran a Memorial 5K on Saturday to honor the victims of 9/11.
A more somber ceremony took place at the West Point Fire Station 2 on Stony Lonesome Road, where 18 current and former members of the West Point Fire Department honored the 343 firefighters who died on 9/11 and one of their own who died as well.
Richard “Bruce” Van Hine, born July 25, 1953, was a former enlisted Navy member who was a firefighter at West Point from 1986-94 before moving on to the New York City Fire Department. On 9/11, he would perish with five other members of his Bronx/Harlem Squad 41 while trying to save people in Tower Two.
During the ceremony, firefighter and WPFD chaplain Anthony Ferraiuolo Jr., spoke through the words of Van Hine’s wife, Ann, about Bruce’s passion for hiking and completing the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut sections of the Appalachian Trail. However, some of the more sensitive moments were about how humble he was about his job as a firefighter.
“People say that Bruce was a hero, but he never liked that word,” Ferraiuolo said through Ann’s words. “He would say he was just doing his job — the job that he loved. He got to be the firefighter he always wanted to be. He is missed, but his legacy of faith, family, friends and living his calling will be told to the next generation.”
His mark will continue for generations to come at West Point as a giant stone etched with his name, squad and 9/11 date sits in a well-kempt area with a flowery bush under the flagpole on the fire department’s front lawn. Nonetheless, the ceremony is the main part of the day for the men at the fire station.
“The significance of the day is Sept. 11, but on a smaller scale we honor Bruce Van Hine because he was a West Point firefighter before he transferred to FDNY,” Ferraiuolo said. “Every year, we get together … the tag line for this day is always, ‘Never Forget,’ and it shouldn’t be a cliché thing that we bring up. That is why we all get together and it’s nice that guys here who are retired still come back every year for fellowship and remember Bruce.
“If it wasn’t for Bruce and the other 342 firefighters, we would be a lot worse off than we are today,” he added about the many more lives that would have been lost without their bravery. “We are proud that they made that sacrifice and we are even more proud to honor them every year around this time.”
Two former members of WPFD, retired Jerry Kiernan, who was with the department from 1976-2003, and George Beodecker, who worked at the WPFD from 1985-2004 before moving on to be chief in the VA fire system, spoke highly of Hine. They described him as a person of integrity and very humble, a family man who had a dry wit and humor. His smarts and abilities led him toward the road of being in FDNY, but it was a long road nevertheless.
“He received a letter from FDNY asking if he was still interested in coming to the (FDNY) academy … and it was almost eight years since he had taken the test,” Kiernan, whose son Sean is currently a lieutenant with WPFD, said. “He had forgotten he had taken the test … we were sitting in the back having coffee and he says, ‘do you think I ought to do it?’ and I said, ‘What the hell are you doing here now, go home now.’”
Van Hine made it through the academy and he then went to a squad quickly.
“He went to a truck out of the academy, which is unique in itself,” Kiernan said. “Then he went from the truck to the squad. The guys are all MTs (medical technicians), these guys all have different skill sets. That is what got him into the squad because they saw an opportunity with his unique talents.”
Those unique talents took him from West Point to eventually the Twin Towers on 9/11, as those two numbers said together are synonymous with where were you when it happened and the emotions that come from deep inside when reflecting on that day.
Shock was the common theme at the time as the billowing, heavy smoke came from the Twin Towers and then later the Pentagon and an open field in Pennsylvania.
It was a seminal day with many memories that flooded their minds of the 9/11 experience to the exact thing they were doing when they found out. Kiernan was working his part-time job as security at Cornwall Hospital and Ferraiuolo was working at Keller Army Community Hospital’s medical warehouse. Current WPFD lieutenant Austin McCarty, whose dad Tim was part of WPFD on 9/11, was sitting in his seventh-grade history class in Cornwall and Beodecker was sitting at Fire Station #3 on Route 293 as the driver of the day when the planes hit.
However, as each person reflected on the initial shock and fear, or the quiet of local neighborhoods or that West Point went into shutdown mode, Beodecker was reminded of the worry for Van Hine and five other West Point firefighter alumni who were NYC firemen at the time.
“As Jerry (Kiernan) would know, we were concerned with Bruce and the other five other alumni from here who went to FDNY,” Beodecker said. “On that particular day, that is part of what we were concerned about as we didn’t know who was working and who wasn’t.”
Miraculously, one of the alumni, Jay Jonas, survived the collapse of the North Tower with 15 others in the Miracle of Stairwell B, as the building of concrete fell all around them except between the first and fourth floors of Stairwell B.
“This is a part of the West Point legacy as a lot of guys who started here went on to FDNY,” Beodecker said. “A variety of people started their fire service careers here who their ultimate goal, especially those from the area, was to go to FDNY and did. So, naturally, they are like Bruce, this is our family.”
From a firefighter’s point of view, this environment can be life and death on any call, which brings together a camaraderie that very few jobs have among each of its members.
“It’s an extended family. It is a bigger family. You’ve heard people call it the ‘Brotherhood,’ but it is as much a brotherhood as any member who puts on the equipment,” Beodecker said. “What does this mean to us? I’ve been a volunteer firefighter for 45 years and a career firefighter for 30-plus years for two different agencies — it is all one family. It’s our job to make sure we take care of each other because on any day that could be any one of us, you don’t have to be in New York City to be killed.
“There were a couple of guys killed the other day in wild land fires in Oregon when eight guys were overrun in a burn,” Boedecker added, “We feel that here as keenly as they feel that out there, but the average person doesn’t get that on why this day continues to matter and I have another memorial to go to this afternoon (Friday). It’s because if we don’t keep remembering, nobody is going to remember.”
The Van Hine memorial will continue for as long as people respect the ultimate sacrifice Van Hine and 342 other firefighters gave on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Every one of those 343 guys, to this day people ask me how did they keep going as they knew what they were going into and how did they keep doing it,” Beodecker said. “It’s like Jerry said, their commitment is an unconditional commitment.”
Kiernan and McCarty added that it’s a deep-seated thing, a true calling as when the bell rings at the fire station, all bets are off and getting the job done comes first and foremost, sometimes at the risk of personal safety.
“That is just the nature of the job,” Kiernan said. “That’s the nature of the people who are here. That is why we are here to talk about Bruce without talking about the context and why his name matters as none of the young guys ever met him.”
The life of Bruce Van Hine will live on forever in the hearts and minds of those who knew him and those who didn’t who will keep his memory going on. But as Ferraiuolo mentioned in Ann’s words at the end of the memorial ceremony, his memory of being a hero lived in her dreams as well.