Three hundred and forty-three.
That’s what really got to Makeo Cons-Scala, sitting outside in the schoolyard with his classmates at St. Stephen Martyr School on a Friday morning. How could 343 firefighters all die while trying to save people inside those Twin Towers back in New York City? The sixth-grader had a hard time putting his mind around that.
“I just knew that the Twin Towers were destroyed by planes that got hijacked by terrorists,” he said. “I learned it, I think, in fourth grade from teachers. But today I learned that 343 firefighters died along with more police officers. It was devastating. Like, it’s really sad.”
After a moment, he added, “Of course, we should remember them.”
Makeo and the other students at the parochial school in Monterey Park had the honor of hosting FDNY Rescue 5 on June 6. The red-and-white vehicle, stationed in Staten Island, had raced to lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, with 12 firefighters on board. Only one returned.
The rest perished in the conflagration caused by American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 — piloted by Islamic terrorist hijackers from the group al-Qaeda — crashing into the Empire State’s iconic Twin Towers on a massive suicide mission. Within two hours, both tragically collapsed to the ground.
Also severely damaged, Rescue 5 had to be restored. Now the little engine, with the names of its dead crew hand-written on the sides, crisscrosses the United States educating the public and, especially, kids who weren’t even alive on 9/11.
“Everybody who wears a badge just feels very close to this,” said Los Angeles County Fire Department inspector Keith Mora, who addressed the students. “At any point, we could go out on any call and not go home to our families. So the ultimate sacrifice that they paid that day, we honor by showing this rig, sharing it and trying to educate everyone with it….
“This is the piece of equipment that travels the country and just shares the memory, educates, And for little ones like you who weren’t around, this is a relic of our nation’s history. This was one of the few large attacks on American soil, the first being Pearl Harbor, that put us into a war. Many of our parents, brothers, sisters are still fighting in a war today because of the events that happened on 9/11 — because of the events that this engine was a part of.”
The memorial, a joint project of the Los Angeles County and Monterey Park fire departments along with St. Stephen Martyr School, mournfully began with a lone bagpiper. Under a marine-layer gray sky, he deliberately paraded alongside Rescue 5, all spit-shined and polished, stopping in front of the seated boys and girls on folding chairs and metal bleachers, and then continuing through the asphalt schoolyard until his doleful music drifting away. Father Leo Ortega, administrator (and newly-named pastor) of St. Stephen Martyr, gave a public prayer, and students sang hymns.
Father Ortega recalled the early Friday phone call he got from a friend who simply said, “Leo, turn on your television. We’re at war.” The cleric noted how suddenly life changed “for all of us.” While some became angry and bitter, others flocked to churches. Most of all, the whole nation mourned.
“I look at this fire truck today, and this fire truck has been traveling all over the country teaching our young people, like you, who were not here when this happened. It’s reminding us of the spirit of this country, the spirit of America. We will never be defeated. That’s the spirit of God. That’s the spirit of God that cannot be defeated by any darkness, by any tragedy. The spirit of God is with us in those dark times and continues.
“We will never forget,” he stressed. “We shall never forget.”
Prayers of petition were said — not only for those who died in the terrorist attacks, which included two other planes aimed at the Pentagon and the Capitol, but for all servicemen and servicewomen, all victims of violence and against all types of hatred. Then the names of the 11 firefighters were read, with a solemn chime sounding after each. Boys in their white shirts, dark ties and khakis along with girls dressed in plaid jumpers or white blouses, plaid ties and gray skirts stood still in silence.
The fire truck memorial came to an end with the singing of “God Bless America.”
After, principal Christina Arellano called the morning outdoor assembly a wonderful opportunity for her students, who study what happened on 9/11 in their social studies classes.
“Now we are able to bring this event to what they’re learning in the classroom, so this is very special and unique,” she said. “I think this is the first time Rescue 5 has come to a Catholic school. So even though we can’t ask them the question, ‘Where were you on 9/11?’ we can ask, ‘What do you know about 9/11?’
“And they’ll always remember this fire truck and the prayer service.”
Sixth-grader Angel Chan said she won’t forget about both for a long time. “I think it’s sad that we lost, like, 3,000, but it’s bringing us together,” pointed out the 11-year-old. “So it’s kind of good and bad. But it’s mostly bad. It’s good to remember, but it’s really sad, though.”
Because like her classmate Makeo, Angel didn’t know that 345 firefighters, including 11 from Rescue 5, had died on Sept. 11, 2001.