For Durham firefighter W. Allen Fritts, the upcoming 9/11 memorial observance at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan is a fitting tribute to those who died, one he hopes will cement the memory of the attacks in the hearts, minds and souls of Americans.
But the date itself, Fritts says, is just that, and the memorial shouldn’t overshadow the humanity behind the event.
“What happened should never be forgotten, I hope we never forget it,” says Fritts, who became so involved in the Fire Department of New York City Foundation after 9/11 that he was named, last year, an honorary assistant chief of the fire department. “This anniversary, it’s just a date, a number for me. I think about [September 11th] frequently. It’s something America should never forget, they should never forget these people.”
Fritts' good friend, Thomas Von Essen, who was New York City’s fire commissioner when the towers collapsed and spent countless days at Ground Zero following the attacks, has a different take.
Reminders of 9/11 are so painful for him, that Von Essen mentally recoils at the idea of a massive memorial event like the one that is planned.
“I just wish we weren’t thinking about it as much,” says Von Essen, whose department lost 343 firefighters when the towers fell.
Both men, who first struck up a business relationship and then a strong friendship a year after the terror attacks, were invited to the 10-year anniversary memorial celebration planned at Ground Zero on Sept. 11. Von Essen will go, reluctantly and out of a sense of duty.
“I would much rather be at a firehouse, with 50 people that really cared, than to be surrounded by media and a bunch of politicians,” he said.
Fritts, a longtime member of Durham’s Volunteer Fire Department and the department’s chaplain, will take part in a much more subdued ceremony honoring the Sept. 11 victims at Durham’s Town Green on the anniversary.
“I’ll support it from my town, from my department,” he said.
While they share similar values, opinions and business perspectives, the two friends’ somewhat disparate views of the upcoming anniversary were formed by where they were, physically and mentally, on Sept. 11, 2001.
Fritts was in East Hartford for a business seminar that was canceled because of the terror attacks. He spent the day in a hotel lobby, watching on television as the events unfolded in New York City. As a firefighter and president of Honeywell Fire Prevention Services, Fritts empathized deeply with the losses of that day. And he fears they will begin to fade from our collective memory after this 10th anniversary.
“You wonder when the history books about this will be written.”
For Von Essen, the losses of that day were real and immediate. The raw emotions from them have lingered and are ratcheting up with this anniversary.
“It’s horrible … the worldwide interest in it, you go through interviews like this and you can’t help but dredge up all of the emotions.”
He was at Ground Zero with then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on Sept. 11, trying desperately to determine what was happening, fielding national media inquiries with his boss and hearing the gut-wrenching reports that hundreds of his fellow firefighters were dead.
He went to countless funeral services in the weeks after the attacks, consoling the widows and children of his fellow-firefighters.
“For me, so close to it, when I look at it … I immediately see one of my friends' kids who was 9 years old watching that tower drop. I see past what everyone else sees. I see a desire to let those kids move on a little bit.
“I look forward to the end of this 10-year anniversary and the beginning of a lesser interest in it. I really feel it’s healthier for so many of those folks to move forward.”
Fritts got involved in the FDNY Foundation, a group that raises money for the city fire department, about a year after 9/11 when a friend on the board asked him to help raise money for the group.
Fritts, whose hobby is volunteering – “I don’t play golf or tennis,” he jokes – immediately agreed.
He and Von Essen, who also serves on the foundation board, first became business associates after Von Essen became a spokesman for some of Honeywell’s products, and later good friends. Von Essen said he was struck by the strong sense of volunteerism at Honeywell, where Fritts and many of his employees serve as volunteer firefighters, and by Fritts’ commitment to his volunteer department.
“He believes in this, he’s walking the walk,” Von Essen said.
In the years he’s served on the foundation along with Von Essen, Fritts and his company have done so much for the group that Fritts was named an honorary assistant fire chief of the FDNY last year.
Fritts’ commitment to fire safety, and his passion for helping others, Von Essen said, has made an enormous contribution to the foundation, which raised $1.7 million at its annual dinner earlier this year.
“He’s a real player who can really do something for the department,” Von Essen said.