By Nayaba Arinde
There will be many national and local events commemorating the 9/11 20th anniversary on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021.
Black firefighter organization The Vulcan Society will host their 20th year memorial at Bed Stuy’s Quincy St Community Garden (397-401 Quincy Street between Tompkins and Throop Avenues, Brooklyn, at 3 p.m.).
Former Vulcan President Firefighter John Coombs said that some lessons still have not stuck.
“The FDNY prides itself as the greatest department in the world, and yet we still haven’t found a way to deal with talented and diverse members regardless to what has occurred. The FDNY members revert back to their behaviors of old, which, by and large, is inclusive exclusive. Twelve Black firefighters and two paramedics from the EMS division are barely mentioned. This shows the levels of non-recognition that exists.”
A couple of years on the job, and a new Bed Stuy homeowner at the time, Coombs said he had just gone to buy breakfast at the bakery next to Masjid Khalifahon Bedford Avenue when “someone said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. It did not register, but within 20 minutes a second plane had hit, now it was clear that it was an attack, not accident. I immediately got into my car, picked up and took my youngest child to my wife. I went to my firehouse, Engine Company 250 in Borough Park/Flatbush, and on to the rendezvous point in East New York with several companies.”
Coombs said when he eventually was directed to Ground Zero they were put on a one-day-on-one-day-off schedule. On Sunday, after the Tuesday attack, he said, “I remember going down and it had rained, the smell of decaying flesh was self-evident. There was nothing like it. I spent 14, 15 days down there finding body parts. From the first day I found a hand, a foot, a leg, an arm. There was nothing like this.”
Twelve members of the Vulcan Society who perished on 9/11 were:
Captain Vernon Richards
FF Gerald Baptiste
FF Vernon Cherry
FF Tarel Coleman
FF Keith Glascoe
FF Ronnie Henderson
FF William Henry
FF Andrew Fletcher
FF Karl Joseph
FF Keithroy Maynard
FF Shawn Powell
FF Leon Smith Jr.
When asked if he knew where the 12 Vulcan members were lost, Coombs said, “On 9/11 firefighters came from all different houses. Those closest to downtown probably got there first, and so may have been in the first tower that fell.”
At a grand opening event at Vulcan Hall on Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway, Coombs said Firefighter Tarel Coleman stood with him as he welcomed attendees at the entrance. “I was two or three years in, and had a plumber’s union background. Tarel was with Squad 252—they are the firefighters’ fighters—they rescue us. I said I would think about it. I didn’t know that was the last time I would ever see him.”
Contemplating, Coombs added it was a point of contention that the sacrifice of the Black firefighters was largely ignored.
“My thoughts is life is precious. We shouldn’t ignore people or organizations like the Vulcans because we differ in opinions. We all have something to offer. But then FDNY ignores what they don’t think is in their best interest. History has proven that diversity is powerful, because it brings ideas and perspectives that you may not have considered because of your limited exposure.”
As for mental health considerations in the aftermath, Coombs said, “Ishan Scott, retired from Ladder 40, pushed the department to have more counseling available. Rev. Lemad Burrison brought a team to counsel us Vulcans in person.”
A number of individuals came forward directly after 9/11 to help Black firefighters navigate the emotional and mental turmoil they were facing.
“Minister Betty Bogan offered counseling and financial support to anyone in need through her church. Sister [Reverend] Cecelia Carey was with The New York Ecumenical Ensemble Choir, and Bishop Rev. James Forbes from the Riverside Cathedral church in Harlem Riverside Drive, helped us. Vulcan Member Rob Thomas, Seventh Day Adventist did motivational and financial workshops…sometimes he used the church on Malcolm X Blvd and Fulton Street.
“September 11 is, for me, an emotional moment. I can not imagine the heart-tugging those who lost loved ones experience, especially this time of year. My heart goes out to them. I pray their burdens are lightened. I saw Tarel Coleman’s daughter and her mother, and she said she was ready to go to college. I am blessed to see my children grow. I don’t suffer from survivor’s guilt, but I do grieve them.
“We all needed counseling. We are all dealing with a lot. Sometimes we let what we want get in the way of what we have.”
Twenty years after the 9/11 collapse of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in Downtown Manhattan, “the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity” is profoundly illustrated by Harlem’s Anthony Whitaker’s world-renowned “Steel Standing” photograph-turned-sculpture.
Saying he was working by the tragic site as a senior field operator on September 11, 2001, Whitaker said that what he witnessed inspired him to leave blueprints and legacy for his son Mi-Ama Whitaker. His work, he proudly notes, is recognized by the United Nations, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the Pentagon, and New York City and State museums.
“On September 11, 2001, a day forever etched in billions of people’s memories, I was dispatched to Ground Zero as a first responder to assist with the recovery efforts. I was a field employee working with a small team of experts whose objective was to isolate the hazardous exposed electrical grid from the immediate area and restore power to surrounding consumers.”
Out of the torrid pain and agony came a moment of brilliance in the lens of a camera producing an everlasting symbol of endurance.
Established and etched into the historical and cultural landscape by the people the world over, and internationally renowned organizations alike, “Still/Steel Standing” speaks to the capturing of a life-changing moment in time.
“I was on location for seven consecutive days in what seemed like a war zone,” said Whitaker. “One night while I was carrying out my orders, I unexpectedly came face-to-face with the majestic steel ruin of the South Tower. When I saw the ruin—it was profound. It spoke to me. I am steel. I am still standing. It was a 207-foot-tall monolith, 51 foot taller than the Statue of Liberty. It was so unique. It was dealing with an historical event. It was the power that came out of the ruin. It came from a higher source, that name was the powerful message. It was a divine experience in a split moment of time.”
The story of terrorists hijacking planes to attack the Towers, the Pentagon, and brought down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania is the lexicon. There still remain those who question the widely reported version, including Spike Lee with his new HBO docs-series “NYC Epicenters 9/11-> 2021½.”
“We are resilient. We keep moving forward. On that day through the burning building, the horror that was Ground Zero, we did not stop.”
Now a senior district operator with Con Edison, Whitaker also designs and wears his own jewelry out of bronze and semi-precious stones such as amethyst, turquoise, lapis lazuli, carnelian, and Libyan desert glass. “I am an artist. I believe art expresses who we are, what we can achieve, and how we communicate.
“The ultimate vision I have for ‘Steel Standing’ is that its inspirational message transcends across time and humanity to encourage peaceful behavior and provide families, loved ones and friends with the necessary motivation and fortitude to maintain courage and strength, throughout whatever challenges they may be faced with. Today many are faced with the challenge and overcoming the adversity of the COVID-19 global pandemic, so the message of ‘Steel Standing’ continues to resonate.”
As New York braces itself to relive 9/11, Whitaker said, “Overcoming adversity will be something humans will always be confronted with on so many different levels, whether it be personal, as a group of people, nationally and globally. In the process of getting this powerful message out I have, myself, had to overcome much adversity, mainly dealing with institutionalized racism from several prominent organizations, as many people in these institutions do not like the fact of a Black man having the intelligence and creative vision to capture and create something so authentic and artistically profound dealing with a historical event that impacted the entire world…Nevertheless, like us as a people, I’ve pressed on and have made much headway in making ‘Steel Standing’ the message the divine universal consciousness wants it to be. I AM STEEL STANDING!!”