9/11 first responders from Connecticut recall one of America’s darkest days

New Haven

It was 17 years ago that a coordinated terror attack shocked the nation. As Americans mourn and remember, some first reponders are still dealing the looming health issues from that day.

In Milford, a solemn ceremony at the East Side Fire Station honored the lives lost on a life-changing day.

“We remember those first responders, those medics, firefighters, police officers, who ran into those buildings and never came out,” said Mayor Ben Blake (D-Milford).

Seventeen years ago, eight Milford firefighters raced down to New York City to help out. New Haven’s Fire Chief John Alston did, too. but he was part of the Jersey City Fire Department at the time.

“We trained with New York at that time, so there were friends of ours that we knew were gone just by the companies they were assigned to,” Alston said.

On his office wall hangs the helmet from that day.

“I was living in Plainfield, New Jersey at the time, which is about 20 miles away, but you can see the towers from there, and you could see them on fire,” said Alston.

He made the trip into Manhattan after the towers fell, a sight he will never forget.

“Downtown covered in paper and plaster and pulverized concrete,” Alston recalled. 

Related Content: Communities across Connecticut mark 17 years since 9/11 attacks

New Haven’s Director of Emergency Operations Rick Fontana was a West Haven Firefighter at the time.

“We felt that we really needed to go and help,” Fontana said. “Whether that was the right or wrong decision, I think you feel that way, your brothers and sisters are involved in the same type of an incident.”

He was one of two dozen in his department to go to lower Manhattan on September 12th.

“We were right working the pile, we were working the pile,” said Fontana.

The pile was the heap of twisted metal and crushed concrete that was now the tomb for thousands of people. The mission now was to find their remains.

“There were 75 of us, and just as much as you could put in a five gallon bucket turn it around, dump it in the middle of the street, sift through it,” recalled Fontana

In the air, on the ground, everywhere was that dust.

“They were handing out dust masks, then telling us the air was good and it wasn’t,” said Alston.

Alston did not wear a mask. Fontana did.

“We wore what we call N-95 masks, and they actually take about 95% of the particulates out of the air,” Fontana said.

Related Content: US marks 9/11 with somber tributes, new monument to victims

Both are now part of a health program for 9/11 first responders.

“And so it’s just a matter of making sure every year you get your lungs checked and get a little bit of a workup and some bloodwork done,” said Alston.

In the past 17 years, there have been more than 75 hundred cancer cases among 9/11 first responders.

“For the majority of us, we continue to be evaluated and there haven’t been any long-term effects,” Fontana said

Alston and Fontana have both been lucky so far

“Long term, I think those numbers will probably significantly increase and that’s the sad thing,” said Fontana.

The Zadroga Act has been providing monitoring and health care for those first responders for seven and a half years now. Thousands of people have come forward with all kinds of issues both physical and mental.

The eight Milford firefighters who drove down are all fine, according to the Milford chief. 

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