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Arlington Co. firefighter describes being ‘part of history’ after 9/11

Arlington County firefighter Jaleel Davis wasn't working on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, but he rushed out of his home when his department started responding ...

Arlington County firefighter Jaleel Davis wasn’t working on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, but he rushed out of his home when his department started responding to the Pentagon after a hijacked airplane slammed into the building in Northern Virginia.

Davis went to his firehouse, but all of the fire trucks had already departed.

He was able to hitch a ride in a volunteer firefighter’s pickup truck.

“It felt chaotic but it also felt like everything was moving in slow motion,” Davis said. “I could see the firefighters, police and Pentagon employees running. It was a surreal moment. It felt almost like a movie set.”

The plane had crashed through several light poles in the Pentagon’s parking lot before hitting the building and exploding in a fireball, killing 125 people inside the building plus all 64 passengers onboard, including the five hijackers.

The Boeing 757 weighed about 80 metric tons and was traveling at more than 530 mph, according to flight recorder data.

Although the situation was exceptionally difficult, Davis had gone through extensive training to become a first responder.

That training kicked in.

“I never felt overwhelmed or unsafe,” Davis said, even though he was surrounded by chaos at the site of a terrorist attack at the headquarters of the U.S. Defense Department.

In the days that followed, Davis and his team combed through the Pentagon, searching for bodies and putting out hotspots.

The military recovered the plane’s “black box” flight data recorders from the rubble.

“Some of the areas were extremely damaged but at the same time, just a couple feet away, it was like nothing had happened,” Davis recalled.

For example, in one particular area, the floor had collapsed and there was “devastation” on one side of the room.

On the other side, there was a desk with a cup of coffee on it that appeared to be untouched.

“It was amazing that some parts had total destruction and other parts were unscathed in the exact same area,” Davis said. “It’s kind of hard to explain.”

What the anniversary feels like

Every time the anniversary of 9/11 comes around, for Davis, it feels like the attacks “just happened yesterday.”

“I can still feel the weather temperature and I can still smell the fire,” Davis explained. “I have total recollection of everything. It’s so fresh and it’s so real.”

Davis finds himself having to explain to his younger colleagues what it was like to respond to the Pentagon.

Some of the firefighters on his current team hadn’t been born yet.

Others were in elementary school.

“I’m working with people who’ve read about this in history books,” Davis said. “It’s an honor to be able to tell your story and give a firsthand account of what you saw and did. You find yourself to actually be a part of history.”

As part of an annual tradition, an American flag is unfurled on the west side of the Pentagon near the 9/11 Memorial in honor of those who were killed.

The unfurling is typically followed by private and public ceremonies.

“The community reaches out and thanks us for our service,” Davis said. “The public tends to show an outpouring of appreciation because they understand the significance of it and they realize that some of us sacrificed a lot. We put forth the best effort to save lives.”

Becoming more proactive

In the years that followed 9/11, communication became a higher priority for first responders, and various agencies became more connected with each other.

“We are all working with the same goal and that goal is to solve problems,” Davis said. “If we can do that in a more efficient manner through communication, that’s a positive.  In my personal experience we have definitely done that.”

First responders are more proactive than they used to be when it comes to awareness and prevention.

In Arlington County, firefighters now carry more advanced equipment, including bulletproof vests and radiation detectors.

“When I started at the department, we didn’t have ballistic vests,” Davis explained. “We weren’t prepared for mass shooters or explosions or a terrorist attack or anything like that. We live in a different time and age.”

Davis said he believes that lessons learned on 9/11 made first responders more prepared to handle such events.

Still, threats are constantly evolving, and first responders can never be too prepared.

“Overall, I think we are more prepared, but you can’t get used to something until it actually happens,” Davis said. “I think we’re always constantly preparing ourselves for what could possibly happen in the future.”

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