By Tandy Lau and Ariama C. Long
This year marks 21 years since the September 11th tragedy that cut down New York City’s iconic Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. About 3,000 people were killed during the terrorist attack where four planes were hijacked, two flown into the towers and two into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Almost 10,000 people were injured but survived that day.
Out of the 343 firefighters that sacrificed their lives as first responders to the attack, 12 members of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY)’s Black Vulcan Society were lost during rescue and recovery efforts. Their names were firefighters Gerard Baptiste, Vernon Cherry, Tarel Coleman, Andre Fletcher, Keith Glascoe, Ronnie Henderson, William Henry, Karl Joseph, Keithroy Maynard, Vernon Richard, Shawn Powell, and Leon Smith Jr.
Wesley Williams, the founder of the Vulcan Society and the first Black battalion chief, established the society with more than 50 Black firefighters in 1940 because of issues of discrimination in the FDNY, as previously reported by the Amsterdam News.
The Vulcans went on to be known for their advocacy work in fighting discriminatory practices in the FDNY and fundraising for the NAACP, the Urban League and the Harlem YMCA. By 1960, the Vulcan Society had 500 members.
Today, the organization is going strong, though the society’s headquarters in Brooklyn is under construction. Every year the president and members invite the families of 9/11 firefighter victims to a Brooklyn memorial service to honor their sacrifice.
Capt. Paul Washington, former Vulcan Society president, said this year they are also doing a street renaming on a section of Monroe Street to honor fallen firefighter Shawn Powell. Washington recalls that most of the 12 that died were inside or right outside the Twin Towers when they collapsed. “It’s up to us to keep the memory alive. They made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Washignton.
“While the city may forget, the families don’t,” said Vulcan member and Firefighter Greg Shepherd, of Engine Company 234. “A lot of these people had kids and some of them are firefighters now. I bet you they never forgot either. For us it’s about helping the families. They’re our extended family.”
Joining the FDNY was the first time Keithroy Maynard went his own way, recalls his twin brother Kevin. As kids, they attended the same junior high and the same high school. As adults, the pair both worked for Continental Airlines. They even finished each other’s sentences. But Keithroy, a key union organizer at LaGuardia Airport, wanted to be a role model in his neighborhood of East Flatbush. So he became a firefighter.
“One of things I didn’t like was that we were just alike, but now that my brother is no longer here, [it’s] something that I cherish.
“You want to live your own independent life because you look just like someone and we were just alike,” continued Kevin Maynard. “But now when I think about it, I wish I could go back to that point. For me, I look at a lot of stuff now that he is no longer here and I wish I didn’t really feel that way about it.”
Keithroy Maynard was one of the 12 Black firefighters who died during 9/11. They were in the Vulcan Society, a fraternal order for Black members of the FDNY.
Another fallen firefighter, Shawn Powell, will be immortalized in a Bed-Stuy street naming this Saturday. His sister, Monique, remembers him as a decent man who split his time between the military and fire department. And as quite the craftsman and the creative, when the two were children.
“Everybody was playing skully at the time, he created our own skully board—in the living room,” said Monique Powell. “Surprised my mother let him do it, but she did. My mother was very supportive, so he was always creating stuff.”
She also recalls their sibling fascination for “Mission Impossible” and subsequent attempts to remake gadgets and keys from the spy movie. It was just the two of them, so they did everything together.
“He’s very kind, very caring,” she said. “I just miss him because he’s my brother. And I miss that support of him being my brother.”
For Leila Joseph, her brother Karl lives on through her family’s work helping youngsters in their birthplace of Haiti.
“We started a foundation in memory of him for Haiti,” she said. “The reason we did it was also when the earthquake happened in Haiti, everybody was going down there. And I knew there was like a group of firefighters in FDNY who actually went to Haiti.”
Through the FF. Karl Henri Joseph Educational Fund, the Josephs, along with a collective of four other families—the Alphonsos, the Dominiques, the Duchateliers and the Jean Noels—were able to start a school with courses between kindergarten to grade four.
She remembers Karl Joseph as a bookworm—he was always studying. And Joseph was family-oriented, staying at home despite earning enough to move out so he could financially support their parents and siblings when their mother wasn’t working. These days, their younger brother also serves in the FDNY, receiving a promotion just last Friday.
According to Vulcan Society president Dellon Morgan, many family members of the 12 firefighters moved out of New York City over the past 21 years. But Powell and Joseph, whose brothers worked together in Engine Company 207, both stayed, becoming support systems for one another.
“Through the years, like everything that has gone on, [the Powell family] has always been there for us,” said Joseph. “We all go to each other’s thing. So, they’ve been great. And we’ve gotten to know them.”
“Karl Joseph’s family has been very important in my life in the past few years—they look after me, they make sure I’m okay,” said Powell. “They let me go with them on family functions, I speak to Leila all the time.”
Kevin Maynard did not stay in New York City. He left for Houston, to serve as a firefighter in Keithroy’s memory. But there’s something about the “Big Apple” that he can’t let go. Maynard refuses to change his phone number and area code to keep some connection with the city. Whenever he returns to visit his mom, he swells with pride seeing Black firefighters throughout town, followed by a wave of sadness.
“I see the fire trucks, and I see all these brothers on these fire trucks,” said Maynard. “It makes me feel sad that my brother’s not here to enjoy some of it.”
Ariama C. Long and Tandy Lau are Report for America corps members and write for New York City’s The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep them writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w