Salute the Badge: Topeka firefighters reflect on 9/11

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Like most people, Topeka firefighters remember the moment they learned of the 9/11 attacks.

"You realize that this is more than just an accident - that this is an attack on us," Cpt. Jason Broadbent said.

They also remember the emotions.

"Instant anger," recalls fellow TFD Cpt. Bill Miller, "and then pretty much sick to my stomach."

But with the knowledge unique to their profession, they remember thinking of their brother and sisters, ready to do their jobs.

"We watched people run out," says Lt. Jason Nellis. "We saw the firemen run in."

Broadbent, Miller and Nellis had less than five years each on the job when the 9/11 attacks happened. That day, they say, hit home.

"Before, (I) obviously took the job serious, but at 29-years-old, probably didn't realize how serious the job was," Broadbent said.

The grim reminder came in the loss of 343 New York City firefighters - 343 of their brothers and sisters. Miller says the magnitude of the loss is difficult to grasp.

"It would have taken every one of our Topeka firefighters - plus about a hundred more," he said.

Like fire departments across the country, Topeka offered to assist the response. They were not deployed, but, two years later, Broadbent, Miller and Nellis were among a dozen TFD personnel who visited New York, to offer support to their colleagues who'd lost so much

Looking through piles of photos 16 years later, they say it was a once-in-a-lifetime, humbling experience.

"Ten house, one of the stations there that was bombed, we were standing on top, looking into the pit, more or less, and that was all that's left," Nellis said, remembering the disbelief of seeing the devastation that remained, even two years after the attacks.

From that rubble came signs. Before they left, FDNY gifted TFD with a piece of steel in the form of the cross that was found in the pile. It now hangs on the wall of TFD's administration building.

"It wasn't cut. It was found just the way it is," Nellis said. "Maybe that was something our brothers left for us to remember them."

And they do remember them. They say 9/11 changed much about how firefighters handle calls.

"Situational awareness is huge," Miller said. "Be aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to things that aren't the commonplace thing."

"I don't take anything for granted now," Nellis said.

They say there's also a change in the response from the public.

"You get a lot of waves, a lot of thank yous," Nellis said.

In addition, they also sense a renewed love and respect for each other.

"It's always meant everything, but it means a lot to me now because it's family," Broadbent said. "We work with our brothers and sisters every day."

The 343 are always with them. A permanent tribute is now emblazoned on their trucks, advising vehicles to "Stay back 343 feet."

"Every time I see that 343, it gives me a little poke to make sure I'm safe, and keep the crews safe, but try a little bit harder, keep serving, keep doing what we do, because we are here for you," Miller said. "Who goes into a 110 story building after two planes hit it? It's just a squeeze on the shoulder from those guys that perished that day to keep on keeping on."