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Retired firefighter Alan Wallace said the work he did to help evacuate the Pentagon after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, should not be classified as heroic because it is something cops and firefighters do every day around the country.
Wallace rejoined former colleagues Mark Skipper and Dennis Young on Tuesday at Fort Knox, where they were reunited with Foam 161 for the first time in more than a decade. The fire truck was stationed at the Pentagon that fateful Tuesday morning, suffering heavy damage when American Airlines Flight 77 blasted into the west side of the building.
Wallace and Skipper were standing less than 20 feet from the front of the truck when the airplane crashed, sending people into a panic and forcing the men to respond.
Wallace said he forgot about everyone and everything else as he took off running for cover. He slid under a parked van, but the heat emanating from the vehicle forced him to retreat. When he did, he spotted Skipper from a distance and ran to recover him.
“Get your stuff on,” Wallace remembered telling Skipper. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Wallace moved the fire truck from the station before the Secret Service arrived and ran back to it after the attack, hoping it was drivable. By then, the truck was immobile and the entire rear was on fire. Skipper, who heard the click of the engine turning futilely, saw fireballs spitting from the flames of the truck each time Wallace pumped the accelerator.
Realizing the truck was no longer an option, Wallace evacuated as nearby traffic slowed to a crawl, making it difficult for other responders to arrive.
“We were on our own,” he said.
Looking back, Wallace said God allowed them to escape the jaws of death and gave them the use of their bare hands to save others.
“It was a miracle we weren’t incinerated or killed,” he said.
Had they been standing closer, he said, they could have been crushed or had their legs severed.
“The truck is what saved us,” Skipper said, who suffered shrapnel injuries and burns. Wallace hurt his arm, which was wrapped in a makeshift sling fashioned by Skipper.
When the blast occurred, Young was inside the fire station and felt the tremors as it transformed innocuous items on the walls and ceilings into dangerous projectiles. He was unscathed by the momentary frenzy.
The men said the fire truck was successful in buffering the station from the brunt of the blast or else it could have been flattened, killing everyone inside.
Echoing Wallace, Young said they had work to do after they collected themselves, helping evacuees climb out of windows to safety. Young said they worked 12 to 14 hours straight before they were sent to triage for medical treatment.
Wallace has met people who were injured or maimed during the attacks and is happy to see they have improved over the years with the aid of surgery or other treatments.
“I don’t like to talk about it,” Young admitted. While the memories are hard to carry, Young said he will answer any question posed to him as he tries to clear up any misconceptions of what happened by telling the truth.
Wallace, who has told his story on numerous occasions to large crowds, said he is motivated to preserve the day in history by keeping it fresh in the minds of Americans. More than that, he said, it was a coordinated and ruthless attack that could happen again if the nation is not vigilant in its defense.
They never thought of saving the truck itself but cannibalized it of everything they found usable, according to Skipper. Twelve years later, they are grateful for the overtures made by the General George Patton Museum of Leadership to restore the truck back to the state it was in immediately following the attacks. The truck will be part of an elaborate and interactive exhibit expected to cost $300,000.
Ben Lowery, a Patton Museum volunteer, said the truck was missing many of its parts when the museum received it from the Center of Military History, such as a horn, lights, windows, bumper and muffler.
“A lot of stuff was broken and hanging unnecessarily,” Lowery said.
The men, meanwhile, have built a relationship forged through a shared strife and tragic experience. Though separated by states and time, they were laughing and reminiscing like the closest of brothers.
Like Wallace, Young has retired while Skipper works as a federal firefighter near Memphis, Tenn.
Skipper said there is a special and personal bond between the men, which Young said symbolized the organic camaraderie between firefighters.
If you ever find yourself in need of help, you can walk into any fire station in the country and be in the company of friends, Young said.
“It won’t cost me anything,” he said.
Marty Finley can be reached at 270-505-1762 or firstname.lastname@example.org.