LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — September 11 stays with retired Lincoln Fire Chief John Huff because of what he saw and did.
Huff helped steer several multi-state search and rescue crews that federal emergency management officials sent to the Pentagon after terrorists attacked New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
3 News Now Investigator Aaron Sanderford spoke with Huff 20 years ago about being dispatched to the airplane-struck seat of American military power. They spoke again last month about it.
Huff helped build and lead Nebraska Task Force One, the state’s elite urban search and rescue team that the Federal Emergency Management Agency deploys in response to major disasters.
He still remembers that bright, clear September day in 2001. He was an assistant chief at the time, meeting with Lincoln Fire and Rescue leaders when the news interrupted.
“We saw the second plane hit at the World Trade Center, and then during that national news coverage, it flashed to the Pentagon,” Huff said. “Right about then, my pager, my FEMA pager beeped.”
He and another Lincoln firefighter got their gear together and left town within a couple hours, driving 20-plus hours straight through to the Pentagon. They arrived early on Sept. 12.
“We came in from the west, and the sun was just coming up … and as the sun came up you could see this enormous column of smoke over D.C. where the Pentagon was still on fire,” he said.
The strangest thing he remembers is the lack of traffic on the beltway around Washington, D.C., which is usually bumper to bumper around the time they arrived, at 6 a.m. There was “no one on the streets.”
Police officers let Huff and his cohort drive right up to the Pentagon. That’s when he realized that the damage was much worse than what he saw on TV.
The scale of the damage reminded him of the bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, where he had served in a similar role – managing search and rescue crews overnight.
He saw the divot on the west side of the Pentagon, leading up to where the plane hit the building. He saw the light posts sheared off. He saw the punch-out where the nose of the airplane entered three rings of the building. He walked through the hole and saw the landing gear inside.
“You know when I watched this on TV I saw that little sliver of the Pentagon and I thought, in fact, I told my wife that we’ll be there for a few days and then we’ll go to the Trade Center,” Huff said. “I never anticipated being at the Pentagon for a couple of weeks.”
The job was difficult and important: coordinating search and rescue crews from Virginia, Maryland and more that found about 180 people who died, many of them servicemen and servicewomen.
Many appeared uninjured, he said, lost to smoke or fumes. They called in the military after they shored up the walls and floors to recover the victims “with the dignity and respect they deserved.”
One of the better moments of the mission came when military members unfurled a massive U.S. flag over the west side of the Pentagon from the roof.
Huff was standing by a three- or four-star general who was responsible for the Pentagon who told him, “That’s my flag.” Huff thought he meant the nation’s flag. It was the general’s personal flag.
Like a lot of first responders, Huff lost friends from the New York Fire Department on 9/11. But he’s grateful for the chance to help – and to not have had to sit at home and watch.
“I missed 9/11,” he said. “Most of you watched it on TV for the first two or three days or more. I didn’t see any of that. I was in a car and I was working. And that was probably a blessing for me.”
A second, larger crew from Nebraska Task Force One got sent to the World Trade Center two weeks after 2,763 lives there were lost in the building. Huff, just back from the Pentagon, stayed in Lincoln.
“It was very satisfying personally to be able to contribute,” he said.