Sweat and sacrifice: Wilson cadets honor fallen firefighters in 9/11 tribute

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Echoes of exhaustion mixed with the rumble of feet hitting metal stairs Monday morning cut through the tranquility of Maplewood Cemetery as eight fire cadets paid tribute to their fallen brethren who perished on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Sept. 11 was a defining moment for my generation like JFK’s assassination and Pearl Harbor was for generations before me,” lead training instructor Alan Jenkins told members of the Wilson Community College Fire/Rescue Academy. “Take time every day to remember the sacrifices made that day.”

For four months, members of the 39th academy class begin their physical training with a round of seven exercises before running a half-mile and doing another round of seven exercises. On Monday, though, the routine was altered to honor the 343 New York firefighters who died in the attacks on the World Trade Center.

The eight men ran up the tower at the training ground 14 times, doing 49 sets each of the seven exercises — one for every fallen firefighter.

“The tower is about four-and-a-quarter stories, so it will be 60 or so flights of stairs,” said Jenkins, who is a captain with Wilson Fire/Rescue Services. “And that is still far below where guys from FDNY made it that day.”

While the events that took place 16 years ago were life-altering for instructors Jenkins and Wilson Fire/Rescue Services engineer David Thompson, that is not the case for the 18- to 24-year-old cadets. Academy class leader Ryan Chenault was 8 when the third-grader saw the attacks unfold on the TV screen.

“Looking back now and being in this academy, 9/11 shows the sacrifice and dedication necessary to lay down your life for someone you may not know,” Chenault said. “The impacts of that day affected everything. If safety wasn’t a priority before, it definitely is now.”

Cadet Darius Parker, who was 2 when the attacks happened, said he was proud to complete the tribute to fallen firefighters.

“I was just focused on finishing it and thinking about those guys in the tower that day,” he said. “They went up wearing full gear, carrying hand tools and hose, passing people running the other way.”

Chenault, who moved to Wilson from Delaware for the academy, said while he’s unsure whether 9/11 had a direct impact on his desire to join the fire service, he’ll never forget the unification of the country after that day.

Before the tribute, Jenkins recalled how everyone thought the first crash into the World Trade Center tower was an accident and how that sentiment was replaced with confusion when news of the second strike was released.

“The World Trade Center is an amazing structure, but when the Pentagon got hit — the building that stands for the defense of the United States — we knew we were at war, whether anyone declared it or not,” he said.

Jenkins was not a firefighter when the attacks happened, but became a volunteer with Silver Lake a year after and joined Wilson Fire/Rescue a few years later. Sept. 11 steered him toward a career in the fire service and made him steadfast in ensuring future firefighters are prepared.

“We always try to concentrate on the total body, especially the core, because a strong core is what is going to keep you in the fire service for 30 years,” he said.

Jenkins said the other requirement for career firefighters is a passion for service.

“It is important for people to realize the sacrifice others make for them, especially if you are going to be a first responder because it is your job to serve the people,” he said. “No one signs up for this job to have a fire department funeral, but it is the stark reality for almost 100 American career and volunteer firefighters a year who lose their lives in the line of duty.”