Local firefighters recall 9/11 rescue effort

September 8, 2011 8:41:54 PM PDT
Firefighters from the Chicago area didn't watch from afar as terrorists attacked New York on 9/11. They traveled there to help.

As the 10th anniversary approaches, we hear their perspective.

"It didn't take much conversation. We packed up, we knew what we needed to do," said Chief Rick Kolomay, Carol Stream Fire Department.

Right after September 11th, Schaumburg firefighters Rick Kolomay, Jack Schneidwind and Butch Adams left their jobs and families, found co-workers to cover their shifts and, on personal time, headed straight to New York.

"It strikes a fire under you to do what you've been trained to do," said Schneidwind.

More than 50 firefighters from Chicago and the suburbs set up camp near Ground Zero and became Team Chicago. They ate together and slept in shifts.

"The whole rescue team started shouting USA, USA in a coordinated chant, it was pretty humbling," said Kolomay.

A fire safety author and long time training instructor, Kolomay says they gave each other encouragement for nearly a week.

"Just when each one of thought we had seen all there was to see after years on the job, that was unlike anything we even expected," he said.

Former Marine Butch Adams worked with Kolomay and Schneidwind in Schaumburg in 2001.

"I didn't make an impact while I was there, we all tried, we desperately tried," said Adams.

All four men say they have moved on these past 10 years. Schneidwind is now a Schaumburg lieutenant; Kolomay the chief in Carol Stream; Adams has retired and Serb's rookie days are well behind him. But the impact of their experiences in Lower Manhattan stay with them.

"You think about it every day," said Kolomay.

"We as a nation are very strong. Our people are strong. Our volunteerism comes out when it's needed," Adams said.

"I think it's very important to recognize 9/11 and don't forget and let these victims become a footnote in our lives," said Schneidwind.

"They said nobody but anybody from New York should dig. When we came around the corner with Chicago on our helmets they looked at us and said, 'oh we can use you.' They brought us right in," said Steve Serb.

Serb was one of the Chicago firefighters who went to New York after 9/11. I interviewed Serb at Ground Zero back then when he was a rookie with only a year's experience.

"I couldn't believe what I was seeing, it looked like a vacant lot in the city where junk and garbage and degree and metal only on a bigger scale," he said.

Today, Serb is no longer a rookie. He has experience and perspective.

"It was probably the most terrible event in my lifetime and yet my memories are wonderful because it pulled us together. It was an American tragedy, it galvanized our compassion," said Serb.

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