Runnels County commemorates 9/11 with powerful, moving tribute

Bill Hancock
Runnels County Register
The firefighters, Shannon AirMed team, family members, EMTs, nurses, sheriff deputies and others that came together for the Runnels County 9/11 remembrance.

nIt's 3.9 miles from Ballinger High School to the Sonic at 2003 Hutchins Avenue. From that location, it's 1.9 miles to the Runnels County Courthouse, for a total of approximately 5.8 miles. The distance isn't marathon-length, but, it can be just as daunting when you're wearing 50 lbs of gear, especially firefighter bunker/turnout gear.

Members of Ballinger VFD, Eden VFD, Lake Ivie VFD, Winate VFD, Eden VFD and San Angelo FD took up the challenge of covering those miles, in full gear, in remembrance of those who perished on 9/11. San Angelo's Assistant Fire chief Johnny Fisher and his daughter made the walk. Helmets, face shields, SCBA/oxygen tanks, etc., were all worn throughout the "walk."

343 Firefighters

A lone fire engine at the crime scene in Manhattan where the World Trade Center collapsed following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Surrounding buildings were heavily damaged by the debris and massive force of the falling twin towers.

On September 11, 2001, a total of 343 fire fighters died saving people in the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center after terrorists flew jumbo jets into the structures. Each tower was 110 stories, measuring approximately 1,800'. That was distance up stairwells, measured agonizing step after agonizing step by heroes wearing full gear and making the ultimate sacrifice to save others.

Walking 5.8 miles in West Texas over 1 hour and 40 minutes is daunting. If you had asked any of the firefighters and others taking part in the remembrance ceremony that ended at the Runnels County Courthouse lawn, they'd have told you that the 5.8 miles didn't compare to the distance their brethren covered on 9/11.

The task taken up by firefighters throughout the area was worthy, a testament to the strength of the bonds of brotherhood born in blood and fire. The 5.8 mile "walk" was a sobering display of the loyalty that firefighters have to one-another, even to ones they've never met. They honor sacrifice as much as they honor courage and intelligence.

More than just firefighters took part in the remembrance

Leroy Lancaster stands with a young lady who came out to show her support for her father and take part in the ceremonies to remember the tragic events of 9/11/2001.

It wasn't just firefighters that took part in the walk. Some were accompanied by family members. The walk also included EMTs, nurses, sheriff deputies, the North Runnels Hospital Ambulance, Ballinger VFD Rescue truck, a Polaris to help if anyone fell out.

Walking in suffocating gear that allows for no airflow on a West Texas summer morning is a challenge for even the most fit among their ranks. Be that as it may, the task was a triumph for everyone on the walk, with no one falling back. They walked together, lead by Ballinger firefighter Reyna Uribe, one of the smallest firefighters on the march, but she's just as tough, tenacious, and resilient as any firefighter has ever been.

Reyna Uribe, a Ballinger Volunteer Firefighter, helped Runnels County Judge Julia Miller with the organizing of the 9/11 remembrance event by mapping out and setting the 5.8 mile route for firefighters to walk in full gear.

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Runnels County Judge Julia Miller put the event together and spoke about Uribe, "Chrissy (judicial assistant) and I were putting the remembrance together when Reyna asked if they (Ballinger VFD) could be part of it. I told her that of course they could. She went out and mapped out the route and started contacting others. Some VFDs heard about the ceremony and contacted us to see if they could come be part of it. It's been an amazing experience."

The walk started at Ballinger High School, with Shannon Medical Center's AirMed helicopter landing and kicking off the event. The crew of the chopper shut the engine off as they exited for some photos with the heroes waiting to start the walk. After the walk started, the helicopter took off and circled over marchers in one last show of solidarity before flying back home to San Angelo.

The weight of dedication

Firefighters, family members, nurses, EMTs, AirMed, Runnels County Sheriff deputies and others took part in the Runnels County 9/11 remembrance. Firefighters wore full bunker (turnout) gear. The pants weigh 14-pounds. The jacket weighs 7-pounds. The SCBA (Self Contained Breathing Apparatus) weighs 11-pounds. The firefighters wore the gear over a 5.8 mile walk through the heart of Ballinger, from the Ballinger High School, to the 2000 block of Hutchins, and back to the Runnels County Courthouse.

When the walk ended at the courthouse lawn as firefighters took off their gear and started grabbing bottles of cold water from a cooler. The heavy protective clothing, called "turnouts," can weigh as much as 21-pounds, with the pants coming in at 14 pounds, and the jackets coming in at 7-pounds. Firefighters found spots in the shade, or found seats and took a break, drinking cold water as their gear lay soaked with sweat. Every firefighter had sweat streaming down their face and forehead, evidence of just how tough those 5.8 miles were.

Local reverend Max Pratt led a prayer on the courthouse lawn to start the events after the walk. That was followed by remarks from Judge Miller as she introduced the two guest speakers: Bronte native son, Dr. Lynn Lawhon, a veterinarian in Abilene, and retired San Angelo assistant fire chief Todd Sanford.

L-R; Dr. Lynn Lawhon, DVM, County Judge Julia Miller, and retired San Angelo assistant fire chief Todd Sanford stand together on the Runnels County Courthouse lawn. Lawhon and Sanford were guest speakers at the Runnels County 9/11 remembrance event.

Both men spoke of the courage that the firefighters, police officers, and others showed that fateful Tuesday in 2001. They spoke with reverence, and no small amount of admiration for those first responders who walked into the face of death.

Don't stop! Keep moving!

Sanford spoke of traveling to the location in 2013 and the courage of every person who perished. Sanford told the story of a man who was trying to get down the stairwell, and having a hard time. He met a fire crew on their way up. According to Sanford, the man said that a firefighter yelled at him, "Keep going! Don't stop! You keep going! When you get out of the building, keep running. Don't stop."

According to Sanford, the man did as instructed; he kept moving down the stairwell. When he got out of the building, he kept running. He made it out alive. The firefighter and his crew did not make it out. Just one of the numerous stories of undaunted courage and selfless sacrifice that abounded on that fateful day in American history.

Remembering the numbers

Remember the number: 343.

Here are some other numbers: 37 police officers from the Port Authority; 23 police officers from NYPD; 8 EMTs; 3 NY State court officers; 1 patrolman from the New York Fire Patrol. The total deaths that day come to 2,977. People who simply woke up and went to work, or boarded a flight to the West Coast. Over 25,000 people were injured, many dying to this day from toxins and other illnesses contracted while sifting through the debris to try and find survivors and recover the remains of the dead.

Every adult who was alive that day can probably tell you where they were, and what they were doing when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower 8:46 a.m. Most will tell how they were glued to the television news when United Airlines Flight 175 hit the South Tower at 9:03 a.m.

Marking time

Time felt as though it stopped in the United States as the horror of the day keep getting worse with each passing minute. Both towers fells; the Pentagon was struck; Flight 93 crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania after passengers attempted to retake control of the aircraft from the terrorists. But, time kept moving, ticking forward at a horrific pace, tick-marked with new revelations of the death and destruction visited on our country and our very way of life.

Time did stop for 2,977 people. People who never got to hug their child again, or got to say "I love you" to a loved one, or got to wash their car, or got to go home at the end of a long day.

They were mothers and fathers who would never have the joy of helping to plan their child's wedding or graduation, who never got to welcome a grandchild into the world, who never again got to snuggle on the couch with a beloved pet. People who would never again be allowed the opportunity to enjoy the "little things" in life.

They were also 9 children who never had the chance to grow up, to play sports, to act in the school play, to sing in the choir, to graduate, get married and start families of their own. Children who had their future stolen from them by terrorists bent on murder and destruction.

Time stopped for 343 firefighters. The majority of them well aware that they were not going to make it out of the towers alive, their final moments spent trying to save others without regard for their own safety. They worked to get as many people out alive as possible even as they faced their own mortality. Men and women the floors above the impact zones in the towers clung to the outside of the buildings, 1/3 of a mile above the ground. Then, they let go, preferring a long 10-second plunge to their deaths rather than succumbing to fire and smoke.

Making it an annual event

Judge Miller said that they plan to make this remembrance an annual event from now on, "The support has been incredible. So many people came forward to pitch in and help out. We couldn't have done it without them. We're so thankful to our firefighters and first responders for what they do. We could never thank them enough."

Maybe, 343 pairs of eyes looked down with approval on the ceremonies around the country that commemorated their sacrifice, and the deaths of almost 3,000 innocent people. Runnels County showed, one step at a time over 5.8 miles, over 100 minutes, that the deaths on September 11th weren't in vain, that those men and women will always be remembered and honored.

September 11, 2001: Never forget.