Remembering 9/11: The firefighter
By Jackie R. Broach
In 30 years as a firefighter, Troy Hutchinson has seen his share of devastation.
From fires at businesses, houses and apartments to plane crashes and explosions, he responded to them all while working in the metropolitan area of Maryland and Washington, D.C.
But nothing he witnessed before or after Sept. 11, 2001, compares to the attack on the Pentagon that day.
“The way the fireballs would travel through the building being fed by jet fuel, it was amazing,” he said. They traveled from office to office, passing through one and leaving it unharmed only to destroy another.
Hutchinson, of Murrells Inlet, is a firefighter/EMT at Midway Fire and Rescue, but during the attacks he worked for the fire and rescue department of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. He was one of the first responders at the Pentagon, helping put out the flames and later being assigned to search and rescue efforts. He stayed on the scene for nine days, sleeping on the grounds in one of the tents set up for rescue workers.
“You name it, we pretty much did it,” Hutchinson said. “Every aspect of training I received through the years, I pretty much applied that day.”
When the attacks started, Hutchinson and his brother, Arnold, who also worked for the department, were getting ready to be part of a special task force team for a conference scheduled to come to the area later that month. They were in special training for it, meeting with representatives from the FBI and ATF, when they were called with news that the first plane had hit in New York.
“We watched the second plane hit and a couple of the FBI agents had to leave,” Hutchinson recounted. “We hemmed and hawed, wondering what was next and what those guys in New York were going through. We knew while everybody was running out the firemen were going in”
With the next report, they were called back to their station and could see the smoke rising in huge columns across the Potomac River. Hutchinson called his wife, Alice, who was working at Bolling Air Force Base, and told her to get their two children and go to her mother’s house in Virginia.
Hutchinson and his colleagues had barely arrived back at the station before they were deployed to the Pentagon and assigned to fire suppression.
On the scene, progress was halted with the report of another plane coming in. Rescue workers were pulled from the building and sent across Washington Boulevard, where they were ordered to duck behind concrete barriers.
When they went in again, they were there to stay.
It’s still hard to describe his feelings at seeing the damage wrought at the Pentagon.
“It laid heavy on us all,” he said. “It was supposed to be one of the most protected buildings in the U.S., if not the world, and here it was penetrated by terrorists.”
Waiting to see what would happen next, if more attacks would follow, he and the other rescue workers felt like they had targets painted on their backs, he said.
“There were so many things going through your mind,” he recollected. “It was a scary day and one I wouldn’t want to repeat by any means.”
He’s talked to a lot of firemen who retired early after responding to the 2001 attacks. He’s not ready for that, but the events of Sept. 11 did prompt his move south.
After the attacks, some firefighters he knew started moving to Florida and Tennessee, commuting across states to their jobs.
“I thought they were crazy,” Hutchinson said. But they told him Sept. 11 convinced them that tomorrow might not come. They didn’t want to wait for retirement anymore; they wanted to start enjoying life and their families immediately.
“Later on, me and my wife thought about that and it made a lot of sense,” Hutchinson said.
He lost a friend in the attacks in New York: Tommy McCann of Engine 65. McCann had been after Hutchinson to come over to Manhattan and ride with Engine 65. Hutchinson never found the time and it’s something he’ll always regret.
On the 10th anniversary of the attacks, Hutchinson will be on duty at Midway.
“I’d rather be working on the anniversary,” he said. “If I’m off, I see all the video clips and stories and I get emotional. I’d rather keep my mind focused on work.”