The Tuscaloosa News, Ala.
Sep. 10—Before Eddie Pugh was an Tuscaloosa city councilman, he was a Tuscaloosa firefighter.
Pugh, who spent two terms in office, served more than 35 years in the fire service, beginning in 1977 as a firefighter and retiring, in 2012, as a battalion chief.
And he was on duty on Sept. 11, 2001, when he learned about the terrorist attack that ultimately would claim the lives of 2,977 people, including 343 of his fellow firefighters in New York City.
“It’s one of those things you remember where you were,” said Pugh, 67. “It’s almost unbelievable it even happened.”
He and the other firefighters of Tuscaloosa’s Station No. 7 watched on television as men and women wearing uniforms similar to theirs rushed to aid those in the World Trade Center’s north tower as it burned following the impact of American Airlines Flight 11. Then, just after 8 a.m. local time, they watched firefighters rush to aid those in the south tower once it was struck by United Airlines Flight 175.
But they were taken out of their own haze of shock and disbelief as the call came in right around 11 a.m. that the warehouse for Wyatt Brothers Oil Inc., just down from Station 7 on Skyland Boulevard, was in flames.
Pugh said that he initially believed it to be a false alarm and considered not even donning his full firefighter gear, but he realized just how real the call was when he saw the dark smoke billowing into the sky as the fire engine pulled onto the roadway.
“It was a big fire,” Pugh said. “We spent a pretty good bit of the day there.
“And we were all concerned (about the terror attacks), but it did take our minds off of some the things.”
In the days that followed, Pugh said the idea was discussed of going to help, in any way they could, their fellow firefighters in the FDNY, the New York City Fire Department.
Ultimately, though, they heeded the request of then-International Association of Firefighters Vice President Kevin E. Gallagher, who urged outside fire agencies to stay away from New York during a Sept. 13, 2001, press conference held among the rubble of ground zero.
“At this time, we do not need any assistance from outside New York,” Gallagher said to the nation that day. “What we need right now is all your prayers.”
Though Pugh had no way of knowing it at the time, he would eventually come to befriend Gallagher 10 years later following Tuscaloosa’s own catastrophic disaster.
Gallagher, who in 2011 was serving as president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, came to Tuscaloosa to assist in the recovery efforts following the April 27 tornado.
Through a friend, Gallagher had ties to Tuscaloosa and eventually connected with Pugh.
“We got to know each really, really well,” Pugh said.
Gallagher told Pugh stories of what New York firefighters faced in the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks and how he once feared he had lost his own son, also a New York firefighter, whose name was on an early missing persons list before he ultimately turned up safe.
“They had no idea who all was missing,” Pugh said. “Not knowing where anybody was, who was gone, who was still working — it’s just some stories that grab your heart.
“It hurts you, but it also makes you proud that all those firefighters and police officers were up there doing all they could to help others.”
And though he didn’t make it to New York, Pugh said he’s planning to make it to the 20th anniversary memorial that local firefighters are hosting Saturday morning.
Starting at 7:15 a.m. at Tuscaloosa Fire Rescue’s Station 1 at the corner of 15th Street and Greensboro Avenue, the International Association of Firefighters will host an approximately half-hour ceremony in honor of the 2001 attacks.
“We usually just sort of do almost an impromptu gathering around the flagpole kind of thing,” said IAFF Local 403 President Lt. Ben Rawls. “But with this being the 20th anniversary, we wanted to something a little different, something maybe a little more formal.”
The public is invited to the outdoor event, though the breakfast reception planned for afterward is reserved for Tuscaloosa firefighters.
Rawls, who also is assigned to Station 1, said some of the details were still being decided, but he will be playing bagpipes as a member of the Tuscaloosa Fire Rescue’s affiliate of the Emerald Society, a network of social organizations that promotes a fraternal spirit among firefighters of Irish ancestry, and joined by drummer Capt. Eric O’Neal.
In addition to honoring the firefighters who died in the collapse of the towers, the ceremony also will recognize those lost when the Pentagon was struck in Washington, D.C., by American Airlines Flight 77 and the civilians who died after overpowering the terrorists on United Airlines Flight 93, forcing it to crash into a Pennsylvania field.
And though Rawls was just beginning his firefighting career in Monroeville when the attacks occurred, he still remembers the spirit of unity and patriotism that swept the nation afterward, something that ceremonies like the one taking place outside of a Tuscaloosa fire house can help restore.
“My mind always goes to, and we said it shortly after 9/11: ‘Never forget,’ ” Rawls said. “Not only never forget how we felt that day, but never forget how we came together as a nation.
“At the end of the day, we’re all still Americans, so let’s love one another, let’s talk through our differences and find some common ground to move forward with each other.”
Reach Jason Morton at email@example.com.
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