Sept. 11, 2001, was one of our great nation's darkest hours. But stories of heroic men and women rose through the smoky chaos, heartache and confusion.
The Remembrance Rescue Project is a Schaumburg-based educational group that was formed in 2011 and is dedicated to remembering and honoring sacrifices made that day. It is staffed by firefighters who volunteer their time to operate two FDNY trucks the charity has restored, Rescue 4 and Rescue 5. Both vehicles responded to the World Trade Center emergency.
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"Our goal is to allow citizens across the country to see them, touch them and remember the tragic events of that day," said Chris Gantz, project leader and a Chicago-area firefighter himself. "They serve as a tangible bridge for those who have heard of the events but would never be able to travel to New York City and see firsthand."
Rescue 5 is a 1996 HME Saulsbury and belonged to the Staten Island Rescue Company. In addition to numerous firehouses, the city of New York employs five rescue companies, each serving a particular borough.
"They are the best of the best and specialize in such things as dive rescue, hazmat and high-angle rescues," Gantz said. "These 'Navy Seals' of the fire department are responsible for everything out of the norm.
"It had never been done before but on the 11th all five of the rescue companies responded to a single call."
A normal crew has six members but when the alarm bell rang out at Rescue 5, eleven firefighters willingly rode out. A shift change had just occurred, yet two firefighters at other jobs, two at the station studying for a promotion and one at home, all returned to help.
Upon arriving at the World Trade Center, Rescue 5's crew was instructed to help with the South Tower. When the buildings collapsed, all eleven members died. The truck was heavily damaged but repaired and returned to service several months later. In 2002, a new vehicle was donated to the company. Rescue 5 continued to serve; first as a spare truck and later as a designated Hazmat vehicle.
In December 2011, the rig was decommissioned and went to auction.
"After hearing of the truck's extreme significance, we knew this was something that needed to be saved from the scrap yard," Gantz said. The project purchased the vehicle and drove it Chicago. Upon its arrival, a restoration promptly commenced.
The mechanicals were gone through and Capital Truck Body in Cicero sanded the body and applied a new coat of Dupont Red paint. Appropriate graphics were also installed. The volunteers opted to leave the interiors untouched.
"We encourage visitors to touch the trucks but don't allow them inside. The cabins are unchanged from the day they were delivered to the firehouse."
With the overhaul complete, Rescue 5 was returned to the road. The project coordinates with host fire departments to facilitate 9/11 educational programming, memorials and remembrance events. Both trucks travel from coast to coast and are driven, never trailered.
In the past two years, they have been to 24 states and accumulated 25,000 miles. "Our charity works to preserve, share and operate the two rescues. They're maintained as significant historical artifacts," Gantz said.
Requests to host the trucks have poured in, even coming from Canada and Australia. "The trucks are a great teaching tool; they're big, red and bold. It's especially useful with kids who may need help understanding the historical events of the 11th."
The project has even created specialized, age-appropriate curriculum. "With younger audiences, our presentation is the dangers of firefighting. With older middle school grades, we begin to tell the story of the guys on the truck. Men who never thought that everyone they were sitting with would never come back."
Operating the mobile memorials is no small feat. "These trucks break down constantly and parts are costly. They were never designed for long-distance traveling," Gantz said.
While the breakdowns are frustrating, the project has always found fellow Americans willing to help. "Mechanical and maintenance problems have occurred all over the country. Every time, numerous firehouses, parts suppliers, friends and repair shops have offered assistance in order to keep the rescues on the road."
For more details, visit www.therrp.org.