Twenty years have passed, but memories remain.
Every Sept. 11, those of us old enough to remember that date take a moment and reflect, not the least of whom are firefighters.
Barrie Fire Chief Cory Mainprize recalls the day vividly.
“I was helping a friend, who was also a firefighter, do some work on his home and we heard it on the radio most of the day while we were building a deck,” he tells BarrieToday. “I couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of the incident until later in the evening when I got home and saw the images.
“That was in the pre-Twitter days when your phone wouldn’t get cluttered with all the instant updates of what was happening around the world," says Mainprize, who was named Barrie's fire chief in 2018 after working with the local department for more than 17 years.
While still getting the breaking news via the radio, the pair initially had thoughts about their American counterparts.
“We were thinking while they were describing the heights of the buildings and the severity of the fires that this was going to be a very challenging situation for those firefighters,” Mainprize says. “We also knew FDNY (Fire Department of New York) is one of the biggest fire departments in the world with some of the best-trained firefighters when it comes to highrise stuff, and that they would certainly manage the incident.”
As the devastation of the World Trade Center buildings became more and more apparent, the reality of the horrible scenario began to unfold.
“When we heard that the buildings collapsed, immediately it was almost certain there were going to be a significant number of civilian and firefighter fatalities, because it would make sense that they would be in those buildings,” he says.
Within days of the disaster, a group of Barrie firefighters were offering support to fallen New York firefighters’ families and would eventually make their way to Ground Zero. But it was not to help fight fires or clear the mountains of debris.
“Shortly after the event, local businessman Jamie Massie offered to fly a number of staff down to attend funerals,” Mainprize says. “As the FDNY was still heavily engaged in the operation, we were told they were having funerals with very small numbers of people, which is quite unique for a line-of-duty death situation.
“So we attended funerals to offer support to the families and the firefighters, (some of whom) were still able to attend the funerals. But there weren’t many because they were all still working.”
Families and firefighters appreciated the support, the chief adds.
“I think it was really important,” Mainprize says. “Everyone knows the fire service is a tight-knit family that doesn’t stop at the border. Those families knew they had people who were supporting them and grieving with them through such a difficult time."
There are more firefighters in New York City — more 10,000 — than all of Ontario and normally a line-of-duty death would be attended by thousands of people and support for the family would be in place immediately, says Mainprize.
“Because they were trying to support so many families, even a department like FDNY just couldn’t do it,” he adds. “There were uniforms there from all across Ontario and across the world when we were there. I think it was a nice feeling for those families to know that even though their colleagues couldn’t necessarily be there, that other people from across the world were there to support them.”
Before heading back to Barrie, the group did a tour of Ground Zero.
“As horrific as the photos were of the site, they don’t provide any level of understanding of how big the impacted area is until you’re there looking at it,” Mainprize says. “They brought us to a fire station which was once in the shadow of one of the trade centre buildings. There was an observation deck on top of the fire station that overlooked the disaster area.”
Mainprize says he’ll never forget what he saw.
“You look at it and it’s just surreal. It appears to be a movie,” the chief says. “There was the taste and the smell, the dust on your shoes. Until you actually witnessed it, you couldn’t fathom the amount of despair and destruction that took place.
“There were still areas on fire when we were there and that was over a week later,” he adds. “Those of us who were there (at Ground Zero) will never forget that moment standing on the fire station overlooking the scene. It was apocalyptic.
“I’d never seen anything like it before and heaven forbid I ever see anything like it again.”