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Retired Tri-State fire chief recounts experience at Ground Zero following 9/11 attacks

Published: Sep. 11, 2021 at 10:25 PM CDT
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EVANSVILLE, Ind. (WFIE) - Many around the country and in the Tri-State are remembering the tragic events of September 11, 2001.

Retired local firefighter John Buckman III was at Ground Zero in the days that followed the 9/11 attacks.

He spoke with 14 News to reflect on that fateful moment in American history.

From newscasts, documentaries and personal experiences, these catastrophic attacks have been documented just about everywhere.

Tri-State newspaper headlines from September 12, 2001, described it well - “Horror.”

“At the point of the terrorist attack on America, I was sitting at home, in my office at home with my feet up on my desk, talking to a fire chief friend of mine,” Buckman said. “He told me to turn the television on, there was a big fire in New York City. And I remarked, how can that big of a fire get started and grow that big in daylight hours?”

Moments later, reality began to set in for Buckman.

“We realized because the second plane hit the second tour, that’s what was happening,” Buckman said. “America was under attack.”

Locally, Buckman is known as a retired German Township fire chief, but 20 years ago, life was different for him.

“I had just become president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs about three weeks prior to 9/11,” Buckman said. “We were coordinating some of the mutual aid companies from far away that wanted to help the [New York City Fire Department], the Pentagon and Shanksville.

Buckman was one of the thousands digging through the rubble of the collapsed Twin Towers, and where so many souls were lost.

“My first visit to Ground Zero was an emotionally charged event,” Buckman said. “When you get in the neighborhood of the pile, and you look at the devastation and the size. It’s hundreds of feet tall and hundreds of feet across, and there are people we need to rescue.”

And after time, Buckman’s journey didn’t stop at Ground Zero.

“With any large event like this, there’s a need for some changes in the law,” Buckman said. “And the Internation Association of Fire Chiefs, along with other national organizations, came together to develop a legislative program. We needed access to better equipment, more equipment, more training, money.”

Buckman would go on to testify before Congress on five different occasions, lobbying for change.

“We created the National Incident Management System, we created the National Response Plan and what’s called the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, and hiring firefighters at the local level with federal money, which had never been done,” Buckman said.

So even after decades, no matter how much time passes, Buckman and many others remind people of this message.

“This country’s citizens have always stood for service to each other,” Buckman said. “It’s so important for our younger generations to understand, that’s what it was about on 9/11 and this country still needs those servants for us to have a better quality of life.”

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