The bell's metallic gong echoed through the truck bay at Offutt Air Force Base's cavernous fire station soon after sunrise this morning.
Five sets of four tones each — the traditional signal that a fireman is dead.
In a short memorial ceremony repeated today in firehalls across the country, about two dozen Offutt firefighters gathered to remember their 343 New York Fire Department brothers killed in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
“It takes you back to that day,” said Station Chief Arpad Lepper, 35, who participated in the ceremony. “We can't forget that day. Every American should remember.”
Nearly every fire crew in New York City rushed to the center's twin towers that morning 12 years ago after hijacked jetliners crashed into the buildings. While thousands of New Yorkers hurried away from the site, hundreds of firefighters climbed up in an attempt to rescue those injured and trapped on the upper floors.
The list of dead included the department's chief, Peter Ganci, its beloved chaplain, the Rev. Mychal Judge, and hundreds of front-line firefighters and paramedics.
Capt. Chris De Luise, an Offutt chaplain, offered a prayer in memory of the 343 dead, recalling the 99 days that fires continued to burn in the mass of rubble. He noted that the fire service continues to involve sacrifice. Seventy-nine firefighters have died in the line of duty this year.
“We give honor and pay tribute,” he said, “to the men and women who died that day doing what they always did, risking their lives to help save and protect others.”
Firefighter Brent Bergstrom, 35, rang the bell as it stood on a white-covered tabletop, flanked by fire helmets and a fire ax.
On the day of the attacks, he was a construction worker in his home town of Beecher, Ill. Until that day, he never thought of joining the military.
“I didn't have any interest in serving until after 9/11,” Bergstrom said. “I didn't want to serve in peacetime, in garrison.”
Within two years, though, he joined the Air Force and became a firefighter. Now he serves at Offutt as a civilian.
“Every firefighter I know loves their job,” Bergstrom said. “I get to go to work and help people when things are at their worst.”
Lepper said the Sept. 11 attack had a profound impact not only on individual firefighters, but on the profession itself. Too few radios and serious communications difficulties kept many New York firefighters from getting the word that morning that they should evacuate the buildings. Those problems boosted the staggering death toll.
“It was the number of casualties that day,” Lepper said. “This changed the way we do business. We've changed the way we communicate because of 9/11.”
The 9/11 service helps connect today's firefighters with those that served before them, said Chief David Eblin. The Offutt station every year since the terrorist attack.
“It's a tradition at most fire stations,” he said. “American society has a tendency to forget things pretty quickly. We want to try to keep it at the forefront not only of our minds, but the minds of the public.”
And, said Bergstrom, it keeps faith with the families of those New Yorkers who died on that tragic day.
“The reason we do this is to honor them,” he said, “to let the families and their colleagues in the fire service know that we haven't forgotten them.”