“We definitely highlight the 12 Black firefighters who died on September 11, 2001,” firefighter Regina Wilson told the New York Amsterdam News. The Vulcan Society of Black Firefighters member said, “Although you hear a lot of people saying that you shouldn’t separate the ones who responded, it is a necessary thing to do, not only for the Black firefighters, but the women…because when you look at 9/11, or you think of firefighters for most people, they think of white males, and if you look at 9/11 and the majority of the tributes that were done, or a lot of the books that were published and a lot of the stories that have been told, they do not bring forth the Black people and the women who participated in that day.
“So it only tells a one-sided story. And for those who don’t think that is important, or that we shouldn’t say anything about it, I think they’re totally wrong.”
Wilson has been on active-duty with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) since 1999. At that time she was only the 12th African American woman out of 23 women in the FDNY.
The numbers have not improved much since then in the 10,000-plus department. There’s almost 100 now.
The Amsterdam News asked the FDNY for current numbers of women and Black women in the department, but did not hear back by press time.
Bringing more Black women to the job is a passion Wilson advocates for. Diversity and inclusion are important, she says. It is a job of serving the city she loves and interacting with the community daily.
But after only three years in the department, on Sept. 11, 2001, Wilson and her Park Slope Ladder 105/Engine 219 responded to the collapse of the South Tower at the World Trade Center.
Wilson says talking about her recollection of that terrible day is a way of honoring the almost 3,000 people who lost their lives after two planes rammed into the Twin Towers, and their subsequent collapse. Sadly she states how seven members of her Brooklyn firehouse also died that day, including John Chipura, who had asked to swap his assignments that day just before the call came in.
Three hundred and 43 firefighters perished that day, including 12 Black members of the Vulcan Society, the national Black firefighter organization, over which Wilson became president in 2015.
On 9/11, and for months after, Wilson assisted with the search and rescue at Ground Zero. That fateful day had begun as a normal New York morning at Engine 219. But, then something changed.
“I was like what show are they watching, that shows a plane going into a building,” Wilson said, when she heard a loud noise as her fellow firefighters were watching TV in the kitchen. Then she heard the newscaster tell them what was going on. “Then the truck got called out to respond to the Trade Center.”
So the men working the truck rolled out, while she and others on the engine waited to get their call. “We didn’t get over there until the second building fell.”
The Amsterdam News asked what was the energy like in the firehouse when the north tower was hit.
“It was definitely disbelief,” said Wilson, “and then we went into the response mode: what are we going to need; wondering about the guys who just left—are they going to be okay?; how are we going to conquer this big emergency we see in front of us; how are we going to equip our engine? We were trying to figure out how are we going to get information about how our guys were doing…and then just the anticipation of going ourselves…and waiting so long for that call to come. It was just nerve-wrecking…and then just the anticipation of waiting to go out to be able to help, to be a part of that rescue and recovery.”
Asked if Wilson knew at that time it was going to be as massive as it ultimately turned out to be, Wilson responded, “Yes, we could see it, and we could hear the dispatcher sending people out…all these engines and trucks and rescue companies out to the Trade Center. And we could hear the elevation of the response—from an all-hands response, from a first alarm, to a second alarm…elevating to a response level that we’ve never seen before. So we internally knew how big this was going to be.”
The journey to the World Trade Center had her engine going through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, and experiencing such a massive wind, that the whole engine, with 500 gallons of water, was shook, she said. They didn’t know then that the North Tower had collapsed, Wilson said. Plumes of choking gray smoke followed as they ran through the tunnel where they met people covered in the smog. Wilson thought the entrance of the tunnel had fallen in, and they would have to dig themselves out. They had to wash out the eyes of some, help others down from positions they had found themselves stranded upon, and still they were unaware of the horror that they were about to witness and play a major role in aiding victims in.
“I didn’t experience fear going, I just wanted to hurry up and get there to help…Once I got out there then it came upon me,” Wilson recalled, adding that they encountered “this white smoke that looked like a blizzard, I remember this woman was having an asthma attack, and so we rinsed her face off and told her that she had to walk out the tunnel because there was nothing we could do for them.”
As they moved out of the tunnel into lower Manhattan on West Street, Wilson said they heard on the radio, “‘We’re under attack, we’re under attack;’ then I heard this noise like a plane flying over our head, and then my boss was saying, ‘Run, just run, run.’”
They ran back to the engine, followed by a big black cloud of smoke. Wilson said she put on her mask and was immediately engulfed. They realized the second tower had fallen, but could not move until the smoke had subsided.
It sounds traumatizing to relive it.
It is somewhat she said, but also, “being able to explain to people what I—what we all experienced is a part of not allowing the people who died, and the people who participated in the rescue and recovery effort—for that moment or their memories—not to die…So I don’t mind telling the story or experiencing it, if it still allows the relevancy of that day, and the people that participated in that day and days after, to be able to still to allow others to understand what we experienced, and not knowing if another plane was coming, or if people were on the ground shooting. Like who knows how coordinated this terrorist act was? And for all the people to participate in that day, and still be able to still move forward and help people—I don’t want anybody to forget those efforts at all.
Twenty-one years later, Wilson said, “The city is definitely more aware of these types of attacks and that they can happen, but we shouldn’t be asleep behind the wheel, and don’t think that it can’t happen again. There is a level of preparedness that we still need to work on to make sure that we are being a lot more strategic…and smart in the way that we respond to not only big events like that, but even the ones on a day-to-day basis to make sure the we are taking care of ourselves as firefighters, and how we respond to different incidents. I think the department is working on that.”
As she continues in her 24th year as a New York City smoke-eater, Wilson, who is a Vulcan and former president of the United Women’s Firefighters, continues to demand diversity, equality and inclusion in the FDNY.
In July, 2015, the 75-year-old Vulcan Society elected Wilson, 45, as their president—their first female president.
She called the Vulcans “such a wonderful organization, it’s somewhat surreal.”
Wilson told the Amsterdam News then, “The Vulcan Society wanted to help in the recruitment process and change the lack of diversity in the force.”
As the 21st anniversary of 9/11 comes around again, Wilson says accuracy is key.
“If you want to talk about history, let’s just make sure that the history is told with the inclusivity of everybody. So, there were firefighters that were there, there were Black firefighters there, there were women construction, there were construction people there, period, there were search and rescue people. There was a whole lot of people who participated, and that everybody who did their job, and those who are dying now from World Trade Center illnesses, from other places, from the FDNY, from the PD Port Authority—they all need to be recognized. But I definitely want to make sure that African Americans, Hispanics and women are highlighted because we are out of the story period, and should be brought to the forefront, because we care and love our city too, and we don’t want people to think that bravery and heroism come in one color and one gender.”
Wilson said the record must be transparent.
“So, where we all participated in the rescue and recovery effort…and the efforts afterwards, I want to make sure they are recognized and highlighted for their bravery.”
Blessed with a beautiful and commanding voice, Wilson often honors fallen colleagues and serenades at major events as a member of the FDNY’s ceremonial unit.
Meanwhile, as the city ramps up it’s 9/11 coverage, The Vulcan Society of Black Firefighters said that there will be a street co-naming ceremony of Sgt. FDNY Firefighter Shawn Edward Powell taking place on Saturday, Sept. 10, at 11 a.m. on Monroe Street between Marcus Garvey Boulevard and Lewis Avenue, in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn.
Wilson said that The Vulcans will hold their memorial event as they did last year at the First Quincy Community Garden, 397-401 Quincy Street, Bed Stuy Street, Brooklyn on Sept. 11.
“We are still healing,” said Wilson.