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Champaign Fire Chief Remembers 9/11 And How It Changed Firefighting

Champaign Fire Department Shield displayed at the firefighter/police memorial in West Side Park.

CHAMPAIGN – Saturday, September 11, 2021 marks 20 years since one of America’s most tragic days. The Champaign Fire Department will hold a 9/11 Memorial Ceremony, Saturday at 8:46 a.m. on the northeast corner of West Side Park in Champaign. Illinois Newsroom’s Reginald Hardwick talked with Champaign fire chief Gary Ludwig about that terrible day, how it changed him and how it’s changed firefighting.

Below is a transcription of Hardwick’s interview with Ludwig:

Hardwick: It is unfortunately, one of the most common questions Americans have asked each other since September 11, 2001 – but do you remember where you were and what you were doing on that morning?

Ludwig: I was in St. Louis. I was working for the St. Louis Fire Department. I was the chief paramedic at the time. And I was actually assigned the headquarters in my office. And I saw the first I had TV on as I typically do. And I saw the breaking news of what had occurred. And I was very suspicious because of the fact that it was a very clear day and there was blue skies and planes don’t ordinarily hit buildings on days like that. And then, you know, then the tragic second plane hit, and then it was confirmed for me that, that we were under attack.

Hardwick: What were your thoughts? What was going through your head after you realized this was not an accident? 

Ludwig: So, I, I had anger, I had sadness, I was aghast. I went through a whole range of emotions. But one of the things I really harken back to was I had sat through a presentation on what had happened with the first attack in the 90s on the World Trade Center. I had sat through several presentations on that as a Fire Department official, so that we can learn from what happened there and how they mitigated and how they handled it. I remember distinctly listening to the speaker, talk about at any given time, there are 50,000 people in those two buildings. And so, I’m thinking, how many desks are we going to have here? And then I know, though, those are firefighters that are climbing those stairs, trying to rescue people trying to get people out of that building. I fear for their lives also. And then, you know, the unfortunate event occurred that both towers collapsed. And I knew, then at that point, based on the fact that I know that any given day, there are 50,000 people in those two buildings. I knew there was firefighters in those towers. I knew there was other public safety officials such as police officers, EMS workers, that were there, and I knew the death toll will be in the thousands. And I just pure sadness and anger it those who did what they did to our country.

Firefighter statue at Champaign’s West Side Park firefighter/police memorial. (Photo by Reginald Hardwick/Illinois Newsroom)

Hardwick: How did the 911 attacks change firefighting?

Ludwig: Well, one of the things it did to change our profession is, we thought we knew building construction. We studied building construction, just like as a mechanic would study the mechanics of an engine, we have to know how it works, if we’re going to work on it. So, we studied building construction. And we thought we knew building construction, we never envisioned that those towers would collapse. And you know, in my mind, as I’m watching this, I feared what was going to happen was the same thing they feared was going to happen in a Los Angeles skyscraper fire is at the top floors would actually lose their support and fall off the side of the building, I actually thought that’s what’s going to happen in New York City that eventually, the structural members that are supporting the upper part of the building would eventually collapse. In this, the top of the building would fall off, or parts of the building, majority of the building would fall down and collapse upon the existing structure. I never envisioned nor did any other firefighter, or even a lot of engineers envision that both those towers would collapse. So, we look now at building construction and a new way. We’re very cognizant of collapse and what causes collapse in the mechanism by which collapses occur of structures.

Hardwick: Did the 9/11 attacks change you and kind of your perspective on what you do?

Ludwig: Yes, I must tell you, I watch videos every year of the collapse. I watched the attacks; I watch those poor people who stood at 90-100 stories above the street and had a choice of jumping or burning the death. And I can’t comprehend, I can’t envision the harm in the things that went through their mind that those last moments of their life. And it commits me to the fact that what I do, and I know other firefighters feel this way is what we do is that we are here to make a difference and save others. And so, we are more determined as a result of 9/11 to make sure that we know our job, that we’re trained to do our job. And when the bell hits that we do our job. We have to be our best as I like to say when people are having their worst day. We saw what I would say is ordinary firefighters doing extraordinary things on that particular day. And so, they have set an example for us on how we should perform in our profession.

Hardwick: How will you and the department mark 20 years since 9/11, on Saturday?

Ludwig: So, this will be our 19th time doing it. And I’m so proud of the fact that we remember the sacrifices of those who lost their futures. On that particular day, there was about 2900 people that we should never forget that there were 2900 people that went to bed that night, not knowing that it was I mean, their last day, the next day, and the horrors of what they experienced and what they dealt with, and all those who are injured. We cannot forget all those in the military, who have been handed the mantle for the fight on terrorism have lost their lives, including the 13 soldiers that we just lost in Afghanistan. We can’t forget all those have died of the cancers that have come out as a result of being exposed to the 911 toxins that were coming out of that building that was burning. And at the World Trade Center, all the gas and all the other products that were coming out of that building, that people have developed terrible cancer since then they’ve died. So, it’s not only those that have died on 911. But it is also those who have made sacrifices since then, that we should never forget their sacrifices and we should always have a remembrance ceremony and that’s what we plan on doing this Saturday.

Hardwick: Chief Gary Ludwig of the Champaign Fire Department. Thank you for talking with me.

Ludwig: It’s been a pleasure.

Picture of Reginald Hardwick

Reginald Hardwick

Reginald Hardwick is the News & Public Affairs Director at Illinois Public Media. He oversees daily newscasts and online stories. He also manages The 21st Show, a live, weekday talk show that airs on 7 NPR stations throughout Illinois. He is the executive producer of IPM's annual environmental TV special "State of Change." And he is the co-creator of Illinois Soul, IPM's Black-focused audio service that launched in February 2024. Before arriving at IPM in 2019, he served as News Director at WKAR in East Lansing and spent 17 years as a TV news producer and manager at KXAS, the NBC-owned station in Dallas/Fort Worth. Reginald is the recipient of three Edward R. Murrow regional awards, seven regional Emmy awards, and multiple honors from the National Association of Black Journalists. Born in Vietnam, Reginald grew up in Colorado and is a graduate of the University of Northern Colorado. Email: rh14@illinois.edu Twitter: @RNewsWILL

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