Retired fire captain who helped at Ground Zero to speak at ceremony

Today Andy Speier will pay his respects. A retired captain from Snohomish County Fire District 1, he is a dozen years beyond the hell he saw and touched at Ground Zero.

He paid his respects then, too.

Days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bronx native flew from Seattle to New York to do what he could. He was a bucket-brigade volunteer, moving debris and searching for any space in the rubble where survival was a remote possibility. Those searches were in vain.

When he took off his respirator mask and left the smoldering hole, he visited New York City’s firehouses, where the fog of grief and exhaustion was as thick as smoke rising from what was once the World Trade Center.

“I worked at night at Ground Zero, digging. During the day I paid my respects at different firehouses,” Speier, 56, said Tuesday.

At the time, he worked for Fire District 1. Yet Speier was part of the New York Fire Department family that lost 343 members in the Sept. 11 attacks. In his long career, he had worked twice for the New York department, once for a year and later for several years.

“All the guys I worked with, at Engine 54, Ladder 4 and Battalion 9, everyone was missing. Everybody in the battalion was killed that day, over 30 people,” he said. “One of the guys was in his early 60s. He was killed, as well as his son.”

In Edmonds today, Speier will speak at a 7:30 a.m. public ceremony at the Fallen Firefighters Memorial Park, just north of Fire Station 17 downtown. It is there that a steel beam recovered from the World Trade Center will eventually be added to the park as a new Edmonds 9/11 Memorial.

Dave Erickson, a firefighter with Fire District 1, is leading the effort to complete the memorial, which is being created entirely with donated money. “We have a goal of $150,000 to complete construction. We have raised about $35,000,” said Erickson, adding that costs may be lower if some labor and materials are donated.

The beam — 8 feet long, 3 feet high and weighing 2,018 pounds — will be on display at today’s ceremony. It is temporarily housed at Fire Station 17, where it is displayed with antique fire apparatus.

The memorial park was originally created in honor of Capt. Bill Angel, a firefighter killed on the job in 1995.

Erickson said the steel piece was part of a World Trade Center floor beam. On 9/11, pins that once locked the beam to the floor were sheared off or bent. “We have it exactly as it was cut out of the debris field,” Erickson said.

Erickson flew to New York a couple of years ago to accept the beam, acquired through a lengthy application process. Originally owned by the Port Authority of New York, the artifact had been stored during the investigation in a hangar at John F. Kennedy Memorial Airport.

For Speier, who lives in Seattle and works part-time as a battalion chief in Thurston County, the beam is a tangible reminder of the week he spent at Ground Zero.

He wrote a 10th anniversary article, “Reflections on Working at Ground Zero,” for the August 2011 edition of FireRescue magazine. From notes and memories, Speier described the scene in vivid detail: “I have an overwhelming feeling that I’m standing in hell. An act as evil as any perpetrated against humankind has occurred right where I’m standing,” he wrote.

With his article were Speier’s lessons on safety for firefighters in the event of a building collapse. He has taught firefighting at Everett Community College and South Puget Sound Community College. He is also an instructor with nonprofit rescue training companies. He retired as a Fire District 1 captain in 2011.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Speier was teaching a course in building collapse at EvCC. “We canceled class that day,” he said.

It wasn’t long before he had permission from then-Chief Tom Tomberg, of Fire District 1, to take time off and go to New York.

Once flights resumed several days after the attacks, “I was on the first plane out of Sea-Tac,” he said.

His memories of wreckage and heartbreak are still strong. “At 5 in the morning I’ll be driving to teach a class, and certain sounds or smells will bring it back. I’ll realize, unexplainably, I might be crying,” Speier said.

Having seen all that evil can do, he also remembers the good.

“Obviously 9/11 was a huge tragedy,” Speier said. “It was also an incredible rescue effort. Men and women, New York’s fire and police departments, all the surrounding communities, and New Yorkers in general, there were thousands of acts of kindness.

“When things happen, it’s in the American spirit to help other people,” he said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Edmonds memorial

Retired Fire District 1 Capt. Andy Speier is scheduled to speak at a public 9/11 ceremony at 7:30 a.m. today at the Fallen Firefighters Memorial Park just north of Fire Station 17, 275 Sixth Ave. N., Edmonds.

A steel beam from the World Trade Center, part of the park project, will be on display. The project is being funded by donations.

For more information or to donate, go to www.edmonds911memorial.org.

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