9/11 inspired a new generation of firefighters in the suburbs
On Sept. 11, 2001, Lloyd Miller was an out-of-shape 27-year-old struggling to start a career in broadcast or film and working temp jobs to make ends meet.
But as he watched the World Trade Center towers crumble that day, his future came into focus.
"I had an immediate reaction. I decided that day, or the next day, that I wanted to do something more important with my life," he said.
Miller enrolled in classes to become a firefighter and started going to the gym to get healthy and strong. In 2005, he was sworn in as a Mount Prospect firefighter/paramedic, a job he loves.
"It took time and I had to change a lot," Miller said, "but (Sept. 11) ended up changing my life in every way you can imagine."
Just as 9/11 propelled some men and women to join the military or police forces, that infamous day and the heroism shown by many at the scene inspired a new wave of interest in firefighting.
"It came at such a great cost ... but 9/11 built a new generation of fire service. People are still inspired to become public servants because of it," said Elgin firefighter/paramedic Kanen Terry, who is one of those people.
Terry was 18 on 9/11. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy and spent two six-month tours of duty in the Persian Gulf. In the Navy, he says, "everyone's a firefighter" and he learned a lot about chemical warfare and hazardous materials. That knowledge, plus a 9/11-fueled desire to help others, led him to become a firefighter in 2009.
"Now that I do it, it's not nearly as glamorous as I envisioned it when I was younger ... but I still have that sense of accomplishment I was looking for," he said. "Saving lives, saving cats out of trees, putting out grease fires from your grill, all the way to stopping a fire from taking over an entire house, it gives you a sense of purpose. I feel like I'm doing good."
Terry vows to never forget 9/11, always attending memorial services on the anniversary and often wearing Sept. 11 memorial T-shirts. He even tattooed "343" on his arm in memory of the 343 firefighters who died that day.
"It reminds me to honor those people," he said. "I hope (9/11) will continue to be remembered. It was our generation's Pearl Harbor."
For Christopher Clausen, Sept. 11 intensified a desire to serve others. He'd had a successful career as an environmental consultant, but 9/11 prompted him to change careers.
"Post-9/11, I just took a different view of my career path," he said. "It was a calling for me to be of greater service to God, country and community."
Clausen, a lieutenant with the Elgin Fire Department, became the first in his family to join the fire service.
There wasn't a "light bulb moment" for Des Plaines firefighter Kevin Murphy, but 9/11 made him re-evaluate his life and consider a firefighting career. "After 9/11, I said, I'm definitely going to volunteer and do something to give back. ... I wanted to be the one that was coming to help," he said. "I still love coming to work and I couldn't say that about any other job I've had before."
For suburban firefighters, Sept. 11 remains a day of reflection. And while they say the national patriotism has simmered down over the past 15 years, they still have the utmost respect for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
"I was seeing these firemen going in (the towers) -- these were guys with a purpose," Miller said. "They cared about the greater good instead of themselves. I have so much respect for that and so much admiration."
Lake Zurich firefighters will be among the suburban firefighters to wear a special Sept. 11 badge in September, depicting the twin towers.
"I can't imagine what it would be like to be on shift, a normal day, take a few runs in, hang out with your fellow firefighters, and then two planes crash into two buildings?" Murphy said. "We held our hands up when we took the pledge to become a fireman, and I believe everyone who takes that pledge is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. Hopefully, that won't happen. But every fireman is willing to lay down their life."