Most people will always remember where they were and what they were doing when they first learned about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In recognition of the upcoming 11th anniversary of these tragic events, three local heroes shared their first-hand experiences and the important roles they played on that day.
Jimmy Brown of Winter Garden served as a member of the New York City Police Department for nine years. He and his wife, Shirley Rodriguez, resided in New York during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
After nine years with the New York City Police Department, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Jimmy Brown was 10 weeks into a 14-week training period as a probationary firefighter at Engine 10/Ladder 10, located just across the street from the World Trade Center.
Through the station’s open doors, Brown, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, heard the first airplane approaching.
“I was able to tell that it was very large, very close, very low and traveling very fast,” said Brown, now a Winter Garden resident. “I actually heard the turbines accelerating as it neared.”
Within seconds, he watched as American Airlines Flight 11 hit the WTC’s north tower at 466 miles per hour.“I could feel the force of the impact resonate through my body,” he said. “It was like a concussion grenade going off right in front of me. I watched the plate-glass windows of [the station] vibrate to the point that I was amazed they didn’t shatter. The explosion that accompanied the impact was unbelievable. It was louder than any I have ever heard. The fireball was hot enough for me to actually feel the heat all the way down at street level.”Engine 10/Ladder 10 were the first FDNY units to respond to the terrorist attacks. Upon arrival, first responders were met with the scene left behind after ignited jet fuel tunneled down elevator shafts and exploded into the main lobby and several lower floors.“Most of the glass windows that were inches thick were blown out and broken,” Brown said. “The marble slabs that were affixed to the walls were broken and askew. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of civilians pouring out of the building in every direction, while dozens of firefighters came in from everywhere.“Adding to the chaotic atmosphere were the constant crashing sounds and breaking glass. All I could focus on was the sickening, periodic thuds as the bodies [of jumping or falling victims] began hitting the pavement outside.”Each carrying more than 100 pounds of gear and equipment, Brown and his fellow firefighters entered the narrow and crowded stairwell to begin their exhausting climb to the ignited upper floors.“Once inside the stairwell, the chaos that was present in the lobby disappears,” he said. “The flow of civilians coming down and firefighters going up is eerily quiet, calm and orderly. As we climb, many of the civilians are offering up words of encouragement, thanks, prayers and water.” Brown’s group made it to about the 23rd floor when the south tower fell.“Everything changed,” he said. “We began to feel this incredible rumbling, and the floor began to sway left to right so much that I felt as though I was on a ride or that there was an earthquake. As I braced myself against the wall, the lights went out, and the emergency lights activated. The next thing I knew, smoke began to roll up from the lower floors, and I masked up, along with the other guys.”The group decided unanimously to evacuate. Navigating through debris, blocked stairwells, broken pipes and thick airborne dust, Brown made it out of the building and across the plaza to 6 WTC’s overhang. After several minutes of helping to direct civilians to Vesey Street, Brown began to hear a rumbling that quickly grew louder.“It sounded like a freight train starting out slowly from far away and getting faster as it neared,” he said. “I could hear the ‘bang, bang, bang’ of the floors falling on each other, and then I felt this huge gust of wind as all the air got pushed out of the building.”As Brown braced himself against 6 WTC, falling wreckage and debris quickly and painfully buried him up to his chest and shoulders.“With each piece of debris that impacted me directly, it felt as though each was larger and hurt more than the last,” said Brown, who thought about his wife and wondered if he would survive.Hit first at 8:46 a.m., the north tower collapsed at 10:28 a.m. The south tower was hit at 9:03 a.m. and collapsed at 9:59 a.m. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States estimated that it took about 10 seconds for each 110-story building to collapse.
Winter Garden resident Jimmy Brown, former New York police officer and firefighter; Winter Garden Fire Department Battalion Chief Brian Sanders; Tren Trendafilov of the Belle Isle Police Department; and Winter Garden Police Department detective James Cox drive from New York to Winter Garden to deliver a 700-pound steel I-beam from the World Trade Center. The beam is displayed at Winter Garden City Hall.
“I now found myself on my back, enveloped by this massive cloud and a mouthful of powdered dust,” Brown said. “It is pitch black, and I cannot breathe, nor can I hear anything. Whenever I do breathe in, my lungs feel like they are on fire from the pulverized concrete.”As the dust settled, Brown saw he was surrounded by pockets of fire, rubble, beams, concrete slabs, papers and mountains of dust.“Nothing in the building appears to be familiar or recognizable as an office,” he said. “The scene is unbelievably odd, and I am taken aback as I am looking at rigs on fire, crushed cop cars, yet more debris, dust and papers,” he said.
After managing to get up and assisting a trapped civilian, Brown eventually made his way to a nearby command post, where a nurse suspected he was injured. At NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, Brown is finally reunited with Shirley Rodriguez, his wife of now 13 years.“It was the only time I got that relief that he was OK,” Rodriguez said.Today, Brown works at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, and the couple have two children, Andrew, 5, and Gabriella, 3. Diagnosed with acute stress disorder after the attacks, Brown worked with the National Institute of Mental Health to raise awareness for depression in men. He also became a peer counselor for the NYPD and care counselor at his church in Winter Garden.Last year, he and three other local men drove to New York to bring back a 700-pound steel I-beam from the WTC to be displayed at Winter Garden City Hall for the 10th anniversary of the attacks.“When you forget history, you tend to repeat it,” Brown said, about the importance of remembering the attacks. “I don’t want people to forget. My kids won’t forget. I will teach them about it. Tell them exactly what happened. I was a part of history. Hopefully it has an impact. I have debris I kept to show them. I will do my part there.”
Retired pilot and U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dan Fanelli of Windermere piloted a Boeing 727 heading to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Eli Muniz had the day off from his job as a New York City Transit Police officer, whose beat included the World Trade Center.Shortly after dropping his now-adult daughter, Stephanie, at school, he received a call to report for duty because of the attacks.“As I got ready to leave, my wife gave me a hug goodbye,” he said of Nancy Muniz, his wife of now 27 years. “It was a really big hug. She almost didn’t want to let me go.”
Amazed at the traffic congestion and droves of people exiting the city on foot over the Brooklyn Bridge, Muniz finally reached his command center, which included a decontamination post for returning officers, “who were covered with dirt, soot and dust from head to toe,” he said.
One particular scene made a distinct impression on Muniz, a six-year veteran of the NYPD.“There was a senior officer, an old-timer, breaking down in the locker room and just crying,” said Muniz, now a Winter Garden resident. “He was a real tough guy, so to see him breaking down like that, it was surreal.“Just walking past Broadway, we were covered in dust from head to toe. Every night my uniform smelled awful, a terrible burning smell.”Muniz, who grew up in Brooklyn, also encountered a jet engine that had fallen in front of a Burger King restaurant.“As crazy as New York is, that just didn’t belong,” he said. “It was weird, the weirdest feeling in the world.”For Muniz, one of the most difficult moments came days later, when NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly announced that their efforts were no longer a rescue mission but a recovery mission.For about two weeks, Muniz worked 12-hour shifts and twice helped sort through the wreckage in a bucket brigade.“Going through the debris — that was pretty rough,” he said. “We had to identify anything that would be important — a wallet or driver’s license, a finger or a bone, any fragment. We had to remember that was one of the biggest crime scenes in the history of the United States.”Today, Muniz works in the Orange County Sheriff’s Office as an investigative analyst. He hopes that Americans continue to remember the attacks of 9/11.“It’s important that we keep a memory of the fallen that passed away there,” he said. “Life is precious. Life is a gift. We need to appreciate our loved ones and hug them often.”“I believe the 9/11 first responders showed us the bravery exhibited by firemen/women, police, paramedics and all first responders every day of their lives,” said Dr. Phillips resident John Hoffman, who was in New York City’s Penn Plaza on 9/11. “Every time I see one of these people in uniform, it always makes me think of the courage they have every day to deal with extremely dangerous situations. They never know exactly what they are facing, but they pursue their mission every day. Sept. 11 was an all too vivid reminder of what these courageous souls do for all of us every day of every year.”
Windermere resident and former congressional candidate Dan Fanelli (right) meets with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
As an airline captain of a Boeing 727 on Sept. 11, 2001, Dan Fanelli had already completed an early morning flight out of Memphis and was about to begin a routine trip from Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.“It started off as a beautiful day to be flying,” recalled the longtime Windermere resident. “It was a cool and crisp morning, and the visibility was excellent.”
His flight took off as planned, and he was well into the air when he learned that the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center was no longer accepting aircrafts into its airspace.“I can only recall one other time New York Center closed its airspace,” Fanelli said. “It was years before, when a big line of thunderstorms had come in. They had to take one plane at a time through a single hole in the squall line. After all my years as a pilot, I felt this airspace restriction was very strange, especially in the extremely clear visibility we experienced that day.”Shortly after he began descending into Washington National, Fanelli got word that a plane had crashed into the WTC.“You just don’t fly into that building,” he said. “I said a silent prayer to God, ‘Please let this not be terrorism.’ I instantly recalled a classified briefing about terrorism that I had received many years before as an active-duty pilot.”Moments later, air traffic control personnel reported that another plane had hit a second tower at the WTC.“I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, this was terrorism,” he said. “I knew we were at risk. I went straight into my military training mode to protect my passengers and the aircraft we needed to get us all safely on the ground.” Fanelli, now retired after 20 years as a Northwest Airlines pilot, is also a retired lieutenant commander and veteran of the U.S. Navy, with more than eight years of active duty and almost 12 years in the Navy Reserve.“I’ve always felt we could survive anything with people like [those who have graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy],” said former Pennsylvania Congressman Dick Schulze of Windermere. “Dan Fanelli is that kind of human being.”Fanelli, who is also a former U.S. House of Representatives candidate who ran for Florida’s 8th congressional district in 2010, added that his military training helped him think quickly as the attacks unfolded. He worked to collect information and keep his passengers and crew calm, even as he instructed his second officer to guard the cockpit door with a crash axe in case a terrorist tried to break through.Terrorism is a very different situation from hijacking, which is addressed in commercial airline training.“Hijackers want to get off and get their money or whatever their demands are,” Fanelli said. “Terrorists are willing and going to die. That is very difficult to defend against. I was just making sure to do everything I could to protect my passengers, the aircraft, and make sure no one came through the cockpit door.”The seasoned pilot landed his plane at Washington Dulles International Airport within moments of the third plane crashing just miles away into the west side of the Pentagon.“It is a day, as long as I live, I will never forget,” said Fanelli, who spoke at the Washington Monument on the ninth anniversary and was master of ceremonies at Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe’s 10th Anniversary Memorial Concert.“It just makes it clearer how lucky we are to live in this country,” Fanelli said. “We have to take care of our country and protect it and our freedoms. I took an oath in the Navy to protect our country and defend our Constitution, and I still honor that oath today. I will serve and help in anyway I can to keep our country a great place to live, work and raise a family. Freedom isn’t free.”
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