Firefighter remembers

James Collier, right, with John Jonas, a New York fire captain who shared his story of bravery and rescue during the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center.

LLOYD Most days James Collier’s mathematics students study equations and variables and exponents.

However, today is not most days. Sept. 11 is the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attack that changed the United States forever, and Collier is devoting his classes today to showing students how firefighters steeled themselves to rush into burning skyscrapers at tremendous personal risk.

Collier’s account of New York firefighters rushing into the blazing towers of the World Trade Center is secondhand, based on interviews with a high-ranking firefighter who was there.

But his understanding of how and why firefighters put their lives on the line to charge into the North Tower is a product of his own previous career as a captain with the McMahan Fire District in the Louisville area.

Two years ago, Collier traveled to New York to interview John Jonas, who was captain of Ladder Co. 6, which rolled to the site shortly after the first plane slammed into the tower.

The Daily Independent published Collier’s story based on the interview in the Sept. 11, 2016 edition — the 15th anniversary of the attack.

Collier remembers wanting to meet and interview Jonas since seeing an NBC documentary on the company’s ordeal. As a fellow firefighter he believed he could augment his own understanding of the demands of his profession, and at the same time impress the importance of 9/11 on a generation of students not yet born when the towers were destroyed.

“I want my students to know that it wasn’t just another day in history. To this day it changed the way we all live. It changed the way we do everything. It’s important for our youth to understand where we were and how we got here,” he said.

He also wants his students to understand the unquestioning commitment firefighters at the World Trade Center felt to the hundreds of people fleeing the conflagration.

“They had no hesitation. I know because I’ve had to make similar decisions. I’ve fallen through floors, I’ve had ceilings collapse, I’ve had near-miss flashovers.”

Collier, 42, believes it is a commitment that is ingrained in firefighters, from birth in his case.

His grandfather, the late James Collier, his father, David Collier, and his uncles Larry and Forrest Collier all were Grayson firefighters, and the Grayson firehouse is one of his earliest memories. “I was a firehouse brat. I dragged my diapers through the firehouse,” he said.

He joined the Grayson department at 18, spent a couple of years there and moved to Louisville for his job, later joining the McMahan department.

The McMahon department served a seven-square-mile mixed-use area of single-family homes, condominium high-rises, retirement towers and commercial buildings, and responded to as many as 2,000 calls per year.

He also taught fire and rescue tactics for the Kentucky Fire Commission through Ashland Community and Technical College before embarking on a second career as a high-school math teacher.

He also wants to share with students his personal memories of 9/11, a day he started off-duty but which culminated in late-night meetings where fire officials started planning for a new way of life that would factor the threat of terrorism into everyday operations.

“I remember everything about that day . . . I can still feel the knot in my stomach when the first tower collapsed.

“We felt like we were all under attack and didn’t know where the next attack would be coming from,” he said.

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