By Sam Wildow
TROY — Miami County capped off its weekend honoring the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with a memorial service on Saturday, during which retired New York City Fire Chief Herbert Penner spoke about his experiences on that day and in the aftermath of the attacks.
“I’m only one person. There’s no ‘S’ on my uniform. I don’t have a cape, so I’m nowhere near Superman,” Penner said. “The closest thing that comes near Superman, to me, is our military. Our military — I was able to come home at night, they don’t come home at night.”
Penner, who has 30 years of experience with the Fire Department of New York City (FDNY), described how he has never seen anything like 9/11.
“9/11, when I first saw it, I was devastated. It was unbelievable,” Penner said. “The fire department usually takes care of business themselves … but this big pile that used to be the tallest buildings in the world at one time, was far beyond anything that I could comprehend.”
Penner described feeling like a “small piece of sand” in what was needed in the response, but with the help of other firefighters, iron workers, construction workers, heavy equipment personnel, and task forces that responded from across the country, the response “turned the sand to a boulder to a mountain.”
“By ourselves, we would have never done it,” Penner said.
Penner said the response to 9/11 started as a rescue mission.
“When I took one look at it, I knew it wasn’t a rescue mission, but for the first 14 days, they called it a rescue mission. It was actually recovery after the first 24 hours. Everybody was found that was going to be found,” Penner said.
Penner described how, during the recovery efforts in the months that followed, “you couldn’t have any emotions.” After the recovery efforts were over, he experienced loss of sleep, anger, and anxiety. He said Saturday’s event was the first time he was speaking publicly about the emotional toll of 9/11 because he wanted to help veterans.
“I want our vets to get help if they need help,” Penner said.
Penner sought help from a psychologist in the years following 9/11. He went on to say that the legacy of Stephen Siller, and working with the Tunnels to Towers Foundation that was made in Siller’s memory, helped Penner.
“The only way to get rid of anger and anxiety and stress is to do the opposite, and that’s to help,” Penner said.
Stephen Siller, a FDNY firefighter who lost his life on Sept. 11, 2001, had finished his shift that day and was on his way to play golf with his three brothers when he heard what was happening at the World Trade Center. Siller returned, put on 70 pounds of equipment, and ran on foot through gridlocked New York City traffic and a blocked-off Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the World Trade Center, where he would later lose his life.
“He was a father of five. He was an orphan by the time he was 10. His brothers actually raised him,” Penner said. “Just to think that someone you don’t even know is actually going to help you — be part of your therapy — is unbelievable.”
Siller’s family started the Tunnels to Towers Foundation, which includes the 9/11 mobile exhibit that was in downtown Troy over the weekend. The foundation helps first responders impacted by 9/11, as well as the families of first responders who lost their lives on 9/11. Additionally, the foundation raises funds for injured veterans and Gold Star families. For more information, visit t2t.org.
Penner also touched on Miami County and the local response to 9/11 and the memorial events for the weekend, particularly the reception the Tunnels to Towers mobile exhibit received last week when it arrived in Troy.
“When we were coming in, all the flags, especially the children and the kids and parents, it was unbelievable, thank you,” Penner said. “I always tell people, ‘Never forget.’ But you never forgot. It was very obvious from that. Let me just close by saying, God bless America, and to the rest of the country, never forget.”