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Fort Knox Fire Chief Marvin Gunderson Jr. relives the memories, horrific visions, angst and anxiety every September as he reflects on the thousands of lives lost when terrorists hijacked four passenger airliners 12 years ago and turned them into crude missiles.
Of those were 343 firefighters who perished as they worked to rescue those trapped and injured in the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
“America was attacked without provocation,” Gunderson said to a crowd gathered Wednesday morning at the General George Patton Museum of Leadership. “One of the most cowardly acts ever perpetrated against the (United States).”
Soldiers stood side by side with first responders as the installation paid its respects during the Patriot Day ceremony, a somber tribute held every year to remember those lost.
During the ceremony, Fort Knox dedicated to Foam 161 fire truck that suffered severe damage when American Airlines Flight 77 burrowed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The truck will be part of an immersive 9/11 showcase inside the Patton Museum.
Gunderson said there are those who believe everyone should move on and stop dwelling on the past.
“To them I not only say no, I say hell no,” he said.
Firefighters share in a mutual brotherhood, Gunderson said. Most wake up and go to work hoping for a quiet day with their minds prepared for the worst. Protecting and serving is not a motto for first responders but rather a commitment to public service, he said.
“Little did they know their world, (and really) the whole world, would all change in a matter of minutes,” Gunderson said.
Four sets of five bells were tolled, a traditional firefighting custom, to honor those killed in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania and the firefighters and first responders whose lives were lost. A fifth set of five bells represented those who have lost their lives in combat during the war on terror, Gunderson said.
Maj. Gen. Jeff Smith, commander of U.S. Army Cadet Command and Fort Knox, said 9/11 has made a significant impact on the modern military at a time of perpetual warfare.
“Many of our young soldiers were kids” when the attacks occurred. They grew up and joined the Army, wanting to give back knowing they would likely be sent into harm’s way, he said.
Even as the military is downsizing and ending conflicts overseas, Smith said there will always be enemies lurking who despise democracy and seek to maim and kill our sons and daughters.
Smith honored three firefighters — Mark Skipper, Alan Wallace and Dennis Young — who were working at the Pentagon the day of the attack and helped with recovery efforts. All three men were injured but assisted for 12 hours or longer before seeking medical treatment.
“They would say they were just doing their job … but I beg to differ,” Smith said, hailing them as heroes for the valor they exemplified in the face of danger.
The men said they probably should have been killed based on where they were standing in relation to the explosion. Wallace and Young have since retired while Skipper is a federal firefighter in the Memphis, Tenn. area.
They joined together in placing a wreath for the victims, and the Patton Museum Foundation and the Radcliff-Fort Knox Tourism & Convention Commission presented the trio awards, thanking them for their service.
Foam 161 was the truck they were assigned to, which was parked near the Pentagon and caught fire after the plane crashed. The museum saved the truck from a planned demolition and restored it to its post-attack condition. Museum officials said it previously was gutted of many of its parts.
Col. Thomas Edwards, garrison commander, worked at the Pentagon and remembered seeing Foam 161 on fire as he evacuated the building. He expressed satisfaction that Fort Knox will be the truck’s resting place.
“It’s monumental.” Edwards said. “It’s a real win for our community.”
Nathan Jones, museum curator, was looking for an artifact connected to 9/11 when the Center of Military History offered him the truck, which will be used to display the theme of leadership. Jones said the three firefighters’ stories are a great example of leadership in the face of adversity. The truck’s history also bridges the narrative of the strategic leadership policies developed to fight two wars, Jones said.
Furthermore, Jones said it is important to tell the stories of those impacted in the nation’s capital, which are often overshadowed by the carnage in New York City.
“People at the Pentagon suffered just as much,” he said.
Marty Finley can be reached at 270-505-1762 or mfinley@