BY PAUL CARSON
This whole journey started by chance. I have been putting videos together promoting the good our Ontario Paramedics do within the profession and in the their communities they serve for about ten years now. Our profession as Paramedics is relatively a new career compared to our police and fire fighter friends. It was important to me that the public see what we as a profession do. Paramedics attend scenes, and initiate patient care and leave to the hospitals. When the media arrives the police and fire remain, and unfortunately our profession has rarely been covered.
I did up a video about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder about this time last year. It was designed to show what Emergency Service workers see and deal with over a career, anything from police shootings, to fire fighters falling through roofs during a fire, military in combat, and the horrific sights Paramedics see. I have lost count at over 20 million hits on this video and continue to get messages almost daily from 35 year vet police officers, seasoned urban fire fighters, military members from around the world, as well Paramedics sending me messages about what the video has done to them emotionally.
Reading the comments on a Facebook page- Blue Lives Matter- I have seen that the audience that has embraced it. I get requests often to have all agencies to use it for their conferences. One person who contacted me was a volunteer Fire Fighter from Pennsylvania who told me that this video inspired him to go back to school and get his Critical Incident Stress Management course and now is his service coordinator after those tough calls his crews attend too. He wanted to "pay it forward" and he invited me to come to Pennsylvania to go onto a bus trip into New York to go onto a retired FDNY Fireboat that was used on September 11th 2001 for over 80 hours pumping water onto the World Trade Centre site after the attacks.
I was told that if I wanted too, I could invite others. I talked to our Commanding Officer for the Honour Guard for Simcoe County Paramedic Services and initially it was going to be four of us going down. I was able to share this with even more, and had almost 2 dozen to go down. Up to two weeks beforehand, we were all going down until we got word that the Captain on the Fireboat died and the cruise in the Harbour on the Fireboat was canceled.
We had a few people opt out, and thought it would be canceled all together, but spoke with our CO of our Honour Guard Frank Spegielberg, and since we had a bus, our hotel rooms reserved, and had the time off, half of us still decided to attend on a plan B.....and what a plan B it would be!
Prior to leaving on September 9th 2016, we met at the County of Simcoe HQ, and we were interviewed by the Barrie Examiner to share our story about what we were about to embark. We told the reporter where we were on September 11th 2001, and what this trip meant to each of us. We all boarded and left at 1500 hours and started to make our way south to the US.
We made it into Carlisle Pennsylvania around 0300 hours. We were exhausted and just wanted to get some sleep before getting up at 0700 Saturday morning to have breakfast, and practice marching as a multi unit Paramedic Honour Guard.
I have not marched since my brief stint in the Canadian Forces Reserves and marching at Camp Ipperwash almost 30 years ago. After a little brushing off of the dust and finding the timing it came back to me quite quickly. I am about a 100 pounds heavier now, and marching in +40C humid weather, it is not ideal weather to be doing this. We got into our dress uniforms and got onto our bus with members from County of Simcoe Paramedic Services, Rama First Nation Paramedic Services, Muskoka Paramedic Services as well Peel Regional Paramedic Services.
We drove a few kilometres to where the Cumberland County Fire Fighters Convention Parade was staging. We got off the bus and it was hot, sticky and uncomfortable being outside, but as a group we were there for a reason, to represent our profession, our communities, our province and our county we all serve in. After a few pictures, we lined up in formation and made our way along the parade route. It was a small community, with maybe a few hundred lining sporadically along the route. We marched over 3 kilometres in the heat.
With our Canadian and Ontario flags up front, and the occasional "Oh Wow...They are Canadian" comments followed by our American friends standing and giving us an applause. Eyes forward, continuing to march it comments followed by our American friends standing and giving us an applause. Eyes forward, continuing to march it seemed forever. We still had over another kilometre or two to go, and had an ambulance come to transport us to the end of the route under one request, that we get out and be able to march the final stretch into the awaiting fire fighters, paramedics, and police officers at the park.
We entered and had received thunderous applause by our fellow Emergency Workers. We were soaked, but were proud to be invited, and received a warmer reception then the temperatures we just marched in. A Life Flight Helicopter arrived into a baseball field adjacent to the park. The afternoon we were able to trade stories and compare the differences in each country, and each service. We waited as long as we could tolerate, and we left to go back to the hotel to change.
By chance I left my camera at the picnic site so we returned, and when we were there, I accepted a plaque from the Cumberland County Fire Fighters Convention for best marching unit. We took a few pictures and shook a few hands and thanked everyone. We went to the hotel to clean up and went out for a meal. We ended the night with the coordinator of the Cumberland County Fire Fighters Convention at the hotel to gives us a few other gifts and we were awarded a second award, this time from the judges overall pick of Best in Show. The night ended celebrating the fellowship of our new friend and brother with drinks till midnight. 0200 hours was coming quick to be on the road for 0230 in New York City.
September 11th 2001 has now arrived. 0230 hours now, we just had something to eat that the night staff at the hotel laid out for us, and we were ready to go by 0300 hours. We drove in the dark through Pennsylvania and New Jersey, making it into New York City by 0600 hours. Since our plan to go onto the boat did not work out, plan B was arranged.
Our Commanding Officer Frank Spiegelberg called the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Commanding Officer of the Ceremonial Unit to see if we could participate in any services in New York. A very simple ceremony was at the Fire Fighters Memorial on the West Side of Manhattan up near Central Park. There was only the New York City Commissioner, FDNY Fire Chief, FDNY Caplan and about 10 FDNY Ceremonial Unit members and ten Ontario Paramedics attending. It was a small service prior to the bigger service in a few hours. Once the service was concluded, we took a few pictures with us on the stairway with the Fire Fighter Memorial in behind us, all at attention, all standing there with pride to be there for our fire fighter friends who lost so much 15 years ago.
Our members went to get something to eat, and I stayed behind to take this all in. The area got a lot busier, and I went down to see if I could help set up for the ceremonies. I was given several American flags and put them over the rebar that was hammered into the ground on both sides of the walk way. Over 200 flags in total. It hit me deep inside, thinking about my father who fought for this flag in Vietnam.
I was able to walk in among the flags after as fabric had that unique snap at times as the welcoming wind blew off the Hudson River, to cool me down some. If anything, our American friends know how to do it up right. I was still awaiting my crew, and stood out on the road to take it all in. Fire Fighters from Germany, France, Australia, all four corners of the US, and I am sure every state was represented.
I was able to talk to many from not only the New York area, or around the US, but from all around the world. Eventually my crews returned, we dressed in full dress uniform, and stood on the streets to await the service to start. We took pictures with many European Fire Fighters, tried to speak to some but there was a language barrier. Today we spoke the same language of brotherhood and sisterhood and to be there to support the FDNY. I have always enjoyed the US military, and their traditions, and was pleased to see the US Marine Band arrive and preparing to play during the service today. We lined up on the streets and waiting for more to fall in on the street and get ready for the service.
We saw members of the FDNY line up on the stair path in front of the Fire Fighters Memorial. FDNY Ceremonial Unit Commanding Officer approached where we were standing and was told that it would be the FDNY honour to have our team from Canada fall in behind members of the FDNY. Indeed an absolute honour! The service started, and it was uncomfortable to stand in the heat, watching the sweat drip off most who were in their dress uniforms. We were on an angle on the stair path but we all stood and was the least we could do because of the sacrifices 343 members of the FDNY perished 15 years prior. They read the names of all 343 Fire Fighters with the heart piercing ringing of the bell. Two Paramedics were members of the FDNY that perished and those two rings of that bell pierced a little louder, a little deeper within for us who stood proudly at the service. The service concluded and we were invited later in the night to the fire station closest to Ground Zero to participate at a sunset service with a few hundred pipe and drum band members of the FDNY. We were told this is something we should not miss.
We had a few hours before the sunset ceremonies so we took in a few sites in New York. We went and got changed and went to find parking, which was originally 120US and they knocked the price down to $80US. We got changed on the bus, and walked through Little Italy. Have been to East Side Mario's Restaurant several times and as we walked through the area, you can see the familiar street names of Fulton, and other familiar sites that gives the restaurant that unique feel. We passed a FDNY Fire Station on the walk to the southern part of Manhattan. They were having a luncheon within the station and we did not want to bother them.
I stopped at a Vietnam Memorial site on the way to the Staten Island Ferry. If anyone is looking for something to do in New York that is free, make your way down to the Staten Island Ferry. We had lunch in the terminal and boarded the Ferry and went over to New Jersey. We were able to look at the south end of Manhattan from the water. The new Freedom Tower is the tallest building now near Ground Zero. It is 1776 feet tall, to represent the year America was born.
Some of the steel was melted down and used in the construction of the building. It is the most prominent building in the NY skyline. We passed the Statute of Liberty and took a few photos and we were at the terminal in New Jersey moments later. I got talking to a Fire Fighter in the terminal who was there September 11th 2001, and just came from paying his respects those lost 15 years ago. I got separated with my group as I got talking and listened to what he was saying. He made fun of my Canadian accent, and told me he liked hockey, and the Maple Leafs suck, most likely because I am a Toronto fan. He invited me for beers but I had to find my crew who was already on the boat.
I gave him $20 and said to have a few on me, and shake my hand and looked me in the eyes and said thank you for coming and being here for us brother. Brother. I was called his brother. Another moment that will stay with me. He walked off telling me again that the Maple Leafs suck in his thick New York accent.
Back on the boat, I got on just in time. Frank was waiting for me like I was a 10 year old not following instructions to stay with the group. We went back to New York City and we were tailed by the US Coast Guard, and they had their .50 cal gun mounted on deck with a member of the Coast Guard manning the weapon, showing that security is still tight in the US. The operator of the boat was circling around us and would start, then stop, then circle, then wave at us on the ferry. We got onto the subway and made our way up to Times Square and walked around for an hour, then made our way back to our bus. We got back into our dress uniforms that had not dried at all, and were wet from two days of parades, and ceremonies in hot weather.
We made our way to Ground Zero. We went into the World Trade Center entrance way, and had a few photo ops in this beautiful architecture skeleton shaped building. We got a few pictures taken and dozens of people began taking pictures of us, because we looked so sharp in our uniforms. We made our way out into the memorial site at Ground Zero. I have been there three times now, but nothing like this experience. It was a somber atmosphere, the sun was setting in behind the buildings surrounding the memorial site. Again we posed for a few pictures and hundreds of cameras were on us. We had several wanting to have pictures with us, and obliged.
I was stopped by a retired US Marine, who wanted to shake our hands when he saw the maple leaf on my dress uniform. He wanted me to sing with him- This Land Is Our Land- and the two of us sang out loud for all to see and hear. We shook hands and again he thanked me, calling me brother. That word again...Brother. More pictures were taken, and we did not want to take away from this hollowed ground and slowly made our way over to the fire house across from Ground Zero.
We met up with the New York City Fire Commissioner and he recognized us from the service earlier in the day. We took pictures with him in front of an FDNY Ambulance. We took a SKYPE call from Barrie's CTV News Anchor Heather Butts and gave an update on our day. We took more pictures and exchanged pins and patches from many from around the world. In the distance you can hear the bag pipes and drums and eventually getting louder, and they began their small parade up the road in front of the Ground Zero Memorial site and returned to in front of the home of Engine 10 and Ladder 10, and the pride and honour of being an FDNY Fire Fighter was evident as each breath blown a little harder and the drum was booming right into our souls. Members of each service of the United States Military was in the parade, as well members of the British Army marched in formation being there for their brothers and sisters. The ceremony concluded with the FDNY Pipes and Drums Band members welcoming in all the military members into their circle and bottles of whiskey started making its way around the circle, broke out in song, and embracing each other, strengthening their bond.
It got dark real quick as the sun went behind the buildings, and just happened to look up and saw the two bright lights angled towards the heavens and the two blue lights were on as a reminder of the two towers that once stood 15 years ago. We returned to the memorial and a few of our guys went for souveniers. I went for a walk to once again take this all in. This is my third time here, never at night, and the illumination of the memorial and the silouettes of objects on the memorial was anything from flowers, to patches, coins, and gut wrenching letters from family members to those lost. It was humbling and enriching for my soul to take this all in. We got a few more pictures and went over to join thousands on the street for a few beers at O'Hara's Bar in behind FDNY Station where all the sunset ceremonies were just held a half hour earlier. Spoke with some from Chicago Fire Department, Maine Fire Department, and got to talk to a Special Forces member of the United States Army. I saw he was a highly decorated member of the Army. He had a Combat Infantry Badge as well a Bronze Star ribbon on his chest, just like my father.
I thought a lot about my dad this day, from putting in the US flags at the Fire Fighter Memorial site, to stopping at the Vietnam Memorial site in Little Italy earlier in the day, to now speaking with a true war hero, just like my father. I got to talk with him for about ten minutes, he knew where we were from as he trained in Southern Ontario at one of the bases near Toronto. Got to speak with another Green Beret Special Forces soldier who got his jump wings from Canada and loved Canadian beer. These guys were rough, tough, leathery, chiseled and hard to the core. They were the real deal. I finished my beer and got a photo with him, and thanked him for his service, and he in returned thanked me for coming down to stand with him and others in uniform, and called me brother. Brother yet again.
Amazing how this day was, but it was not over just yet. We left O'Hara's and made our for dinner. We walked into a restaurant still in dress uniform, and eyes on us right away from from those in the restaurant. Lots of head nods, and a lady mouthed the words "thank you" and smiled. A man in his 50's came up to me to thank me for coming down and was amazed to hear that we came down from Canada to participate in these events today. I gave him my last Peel Paramedic Pin that I had and he lit up with emotion, and gave me a hug. He told me he comes down to honour his friend that was killed 15 years ago in the attacks on September 11th 2001. We had a great meal and a few drinks, and when it came to getting the tab, the waitress said the tab was picked up from a gentleman at the bar that had left. He was impressed with us all and wanted us to have a meal on him. This day I will never forget. We got back on the bus and made our way back to Carlisle Pennsylvania at around 0230hours, 24 hours from when we started the day.
We left around 0900 hours and went to visit Shanksville PA, the crash site and now museum and memorial of Flight 93.
We stopped and got a few pics in front of the sign for Flight 93. We walked out to the flight path the plane made to eventually to their final resting spots. It was on a elevated hill and could look down to see a large boulder where the plane crashed. I noticed the emotion went for jovial to somber real quick once we went into the museum. Members of the Honour Guard had a lump in their throat once they passed through the museum. Listening to some of the phone calls those on the plane left on answering machines saying their good byes, and that they love them. We went down to the memorial site and listened to the US Park Ranger who was extremely knowledgable of the events 15 years ago. We walked to the large marble walls with each name of the those lost one a slab of white marble. We finished the tour and got back on the bus and made our way back to our home country.
This was a life changing experience and it will stick with me till the day I die. Who would of thought after the cancellation of the retired FDNY Fireboat tour, that our plan B would be this amazing experience. Had a chance to read so many comments from my hometown and family members about our trip and it was so humbling to hear from so many that fill me with so much kindness. To all those back home in Chapleau, I thank you not only for the support this past weekend but during my career. I am so lucky to have the love and support at home from my wife Kim and our two guys Hannah and Brooklynn. Without their love and support I would never have gotten to enjoy this experience. I am so lucky to have Kim, Hannah, and Brooklynn in my life, as well my friends from Chapleau and many friends and extended family. Thank you Thank you Thank you my brothers and sisters. :) Love to you all.