‘Nothing prepares you for that’: Edmonton firefighter says volunteering at Ground Zero changed him

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Edmonton firefighter says volunteering at Ground Zero changed him
Twenty years ago Saturday, terrorists attacked the United States. Nearly 3,000 people in New York died when two planes were flown into the World Trade Centre towers. The attacks changed the world and left their mark in Edmonton too. Here's Fletcher Kent – Sep 11, 2021

Todd Weiss is no longer the man he was on Sept. 11, 2001. The Edmonton firefighter’s time at Ground Zero has a lot to do with that.

When the planes hit the World Trade Center in New York City, Weiss was at work at Edmonton’s Fire Hall No. 1. He watched in horror as the towers collapsed.

New York was a long way away, but given his job, Weiss still felt connected.

He knew thousands of people had likely died. He knew many of his firefighting colleagues were probably dead too.

When the dust settled, 2,753 people died in the New York attacks, including 343 firefighters.

The scene was both painful to witness and irresistible.

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“I like to help people. I want to be in the thick of it,” says Weiss.

So when he got a phone call asking if he would be able to go to New York to help the Red Cross response, he agreed.

Weiss had been to many disaster zones before, but when he arrived at Ground Zero in early October, it overwhelmed him.

“Nothing prepares you for that. It’s hard to describe. The enormity of it was unbelievable,” says Weiss.

For three weeks, the firefighter was stationed at the South Respite Center at the edge of the impact zone. Staff there provided support to everyone working to clear the rubble and investigate the collapse. He gave first aid and arranged medical care. Sometimes he simply helped people get lunch.

One day, he remembers a New York Fire captain who walked into the center. Slowly, more and more firefighters joined him. Within minutes the break from working on “the pile” became more of a therapy session.

Weiss says everyone started sharing their stories of what happened to them on Sept. 11. He says they opened up because Weiss was another firefighter who understood them.

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“I guess what I learned was just the trauma they went through,” says Weiss. “It was more than I imagined.

“I was glad they could share with me. I know from my job that it’s important to talk.”

Click to play video: 'How America is preparing to mark 20 years since 9/11'
How America is preparing to mark 20 years since 9/11

As for what they said, Weiss won’t share that. He says the group spoke to him because of the bond they shared as firefighters. He’ll share those stories with other firefighters, he says, but with no one else.

The talks were initially a way to cope with trauma, but over the years, they also helped Weiss and others he knows understand themselves and their job that much better.

Now, 20 years later, Weiss says his time at Ground Zero changed him.

“Initially, I said it hadn’t changed me. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that it did,” he says.

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“Before, I didn’t really appreciate the journey. I was always about the destination and now I appreciate the journey so much more.”

Weiss says he’s now the one telling stories. As the years pass, he sees how important that is.

Now a district chief, he leads many young firefighters, many of whom weren’t even born or certainly don’t remember Sept. 11, 2001.

They may all be working in Edmonton, not New York, but Weiss makes sure they all understand the sacrifices others have made while doing the job they chose.

“It’s important that we don’t forget. We can’t forget our brothers and sisters. Their sacrifice is important.”

It’s a point that was highlighted to Weiss when he returned to New York for the first time since 2001.

Last year, he went back to Ground Zero and visited the 9/11 museum and memorial.

Weiss knew the trip would bring up a lot of memories and emotions, but he says he was surprised by the way it made him feel.

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At one point in the museum, Weiss says he saw and heard one of the alarms that sound when firefighters are in distress.

A flood of memories came back to him of a time he responded to an Edmonton fire in which two firefighters died.

Weiss had to walk away from that area in the museum. He became overwhelmed with emotion.

It’s another sign, he says, of a bond between firefighters, no matter where they work — a bond forged by pain and sacrifice that has been strengthened over these last two decades.

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