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'Our lives were changed, our freedoms were taken away:' Retired firefighter at scene of 9/11 attacks shares story
Marinich now member of Rotary Club of Forsyth County, chair of Forsyth County GOP
911 JM
Forsyth County resident Jerry Marinich, a 30-year career firefighter, was attending training in New York City during the 9/11 attacks. He recently shared his experience with the Forsyth County News.

When remembering the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, most who watched the towers fall have clear memories of exactly where they were when they found out life in America — and across the world — had changed forever.

But some have clearer memories than others.

Today, Jerry Marinich is an active member of the Rotary Club of Forsyth County and serves as chair of the Forsyth County Republican Party, but 20 years ago, during his 30-year career as a firefighter, Marinich had just been promoted to lieutenant in the Binghamton Fire Department in Binghamton, New York, which meant going to a month-long training session with New York City Fire Department promotional firefighters at Fort Totten in Bayside, Queens.

The training began on Monday, Sept. 10, 2001, which Marinich said “was a typical day.”

“We had our roll call, we went through the day and everything,” Marinich recently told the Forsyth County News. “We were staying at Fort Totten in Bayside, Queens. It was the home base for their certified first responders for the fire department and also for training of the first-line officers.”

Jerry and Melody Maranich
Jerry Marinich, Rotary Club of Forsyth County member, shared his experiences on 9/11 during a meeting on Sept. 20. He is shown here with wife Melody.

Tuesday, Sept. 11

After a typical day of training on Monday, Marinich said Tuesday also started like any other day. 

Training began at 8 a.m. — 46 minutes before American Airlines Flight 11 was flown into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

“We started class at 8 o’clock in the morning, did our roll call and were going through what the day’s events were going to be,” Marinich said, “and then at about 8:46 [a.m.] is when the first plane hit, and that’s when the chief of training came into our classroom [and] said, ‘I just had a plane fly into the World Trade Center.’”

Initially, Marinich said he wasn’t sure if the call was real or if it was part of the training before the reality of the situation set in. 

“I’m thinking this is a training exercise, what would you do as a new officer?  We’re not sure at all at this point,” Marinich said. “But, then [the chief told] us that it was a real event, and as things unfolded, he’d let us know what was going on.”

The training officer called those in the program to another room equipped with radio and TV monitors when the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, struck the South Tower.

“That’s when it was all-hands-on-deck for FDNY,” Marinich said.

He said the chief told him he wasn’t sure what to do with him and the 14 other trainees from Upstate New York before they went to the scene. 

“I just asked him if this had happened in our hometown, and your guys were in our hometown and we needed help, what would you do? Would you stop them or let them go?” Marinich recalled. 

So, the chief told him to go get his gear.

He said the class geared up “basically, to treat the walking wounded” before taking a bus from the training facility to Ground Zero.

Ground Zero

When they left the training facility, both towers were still standing, and Marinich said two things stuck out about the ride.

First, one of the busiest cities in the world, infamous for its traffic, “was eerie quiet” and “the highways were empty: no cars on the highways, no cars in the tunnels.”

Then, Marinich said he “realized it was something big” as they got closer to the scene and he could see that smoke was billowing from the middle of the World Trade Center buildings, not out of the top.

“When I saw that the smoke wasn’t coming from the tallest building, that’s when we knew the buildings were down,” Marinich said. “I didn’t know the magnitude. I saw a lot of my friends from FDNY, because we’re both in the same type of union, and saw union officials there. 

“When you lose 343 guys in one day, that’s twice the size of my fire department, and they lost it in one day. It’s just devastating, and then they continue to lose people that are still dying of the effects of 9/11.”

Marinich said he stepped out of the van and into about six inches of soot as he was surrounded by piles of metal and debris dwarfing emergency vehicles, burning cars, papers strewn in all directions and the empty vehicles of the first responders who had arrived on the scene.

“We spent most of that time helping do eyewash for the firefighters when they came out and things like that,” he said. “They had a station set up for if you wanted to go in the pile and help look, that was fine, but we also realized that they had 12,000 firefighters [in FDNY], and the ones that are off-duty are coming. 

“They had a line formed and we could have gotten in line and signed up, but it’s their call. It’s their immediate brothers. Even though we’re all brothers and sisters, it was their immediate brothers,” he said.

Along with doing eyewashes, he also helped unload supplies and find fire gear, pictures and other items located at the scene to help clear the way for vehicles and to help get those belongings to their owners.

“I’ve seen fire apparatuses where, when the buildings came down, the pressure just blew out the windshields and everything and blew papers into every small orifice you could find,” Marinich said. “Some of the rigs were even twisted a little bit, so a big firetruck like that, there had to be a lot of force coming down when [the towers] came down.”

Marinich said though both towers were down by the time he arrived, he did see the 7 World Trade Center building come down after it was heavily damaged by fires caused by debris from the North and South towers.

“Even that was something you don’t want to see unless it was a controlled [demolition], but I can’t imagine 110 stories coming down,” he said. 

As more firefighters and first responders arrived, Marinich and the other trainees began looking for a way back home. 

After helping a van at the scene unload, the trainees had lined up a ride back to Fort Totten before Marinich said he spoke with an FDNY captain.

“I said, ‘How are things going for you?’ He said, ‘Not [expletive] good, I can’t find my guys,’” Marinich recalled. “He said, ‘I want to get back to my station,’ so, we said to the van guy, ‘Hey can you take him back instead of us.’ He said absolutely.”

The trainees then attempted to find a cab back, and Marinich said he and the others approached a New York Police Department station, while wearing gear from the individual departments rather than what FDNY wore, “when all of a sudden from around the corner, comes two or three police officers with their guns pulled.”

After explaining the situation, two of the trainees spoke to an NYPD sergeant, who told them he had good news and bad news about them getting back. 

“The good news is they can get us back to Fort Totten,” Marinich recalled. “The bad news is it’s in the police department horse trailer, but they had just cleaned that out because they were going to use it to transport dead [bodies].”

With the city on high alert, Marinich said the trainees had an issue getting back to their training site without wallets or IDs, which they had left at Fort Totten before going to the barracks.

“We were able to get in that night and get back, but that’s when we learned about all the other things that were going on that we had no idea were going on in the rest of the world, [like] in Shanksville or the Pentagon,” he said. 

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Wednesday, Sept. 12

Marinich said they spent the evening learning about the other events of 9/11 before meeting with the chiefs again on Wednesday morning, where they informed the training was canceled but they could return to Ground Zero, which they decided to do.

“All I could hear was two pieces of metal banging together, I’ll never forget this, and the next thing you know, you see some blue helmets coming up. Then you see some guys coming up and it’s the ironworkers and it’s their drip pans banging against their hammers. If there was one, there was 50 all shoulder-to-shoulder, not a word being said. [They] walk past us, went into the steel pile and started going to work,” Marinich said.

As bodies were recovered, Marinich said he and others on the scene would pay their respects to those who lost their lives. 

He said part of the planned training was “to do a tour of the World Trade Center from top to bottom” to see the site’s sprinkler system. 

“Fortunately for us, it wasn’t that day,” he said. 

By Wednesday evening, the training was canceled and Marinich and the others were told they could stay in the city or go home.

After two days at the epicenter of one of America’s greatest tragedies, he went home on Wednesday night, Sept. 12.

“We did our jobs, and we continued to do our jobs,” he said. “We certainly attended as many of the memorials as we could for the firefighters.”

Wednesday, Sept. 12

Marinich said they spent the evening learning about the other events of 9/11 before meeting with the chiefs again on Wednesday morning, where they informed the training was canceled but they could return to Ground Zero, which they decided to do.

“All I could hear was two pieces of metal banging together, I’ll never forget this, and the next thing you know, you see some blue helmets coming up. Then you see some guys coming up and it’s the ironworkers and it’s their drip pans banging against their hammers. If there was one, there was 50 all shoulder-to-shoulder, not a word being said. [They] walk past us, went into the steel pile and started going to work,” Marinich said.

As bodies were recovered, Marinich said he and others on the scene would pay their respects to those who lost their lives. 

He said part of the planned training was “to do a tour of the World Trade Center from top to bottom” to see the site’s sprinkler system. 

“Fortunately for us, it wasn’t that day,” he said. 

By Wednesday evening, the training was canceled and Marinich and the others were told they could stay in the city or go home.

After two days at the epicenter of one of America’s greatest tragedies, he went home on Wednesday night, Sept. 12.

“We did our jobs, and we continued to do our jobs,” he said. “We certainly attended as many of the memorials as we could for the firefighters.”

Beyond 9/11

Back in Binghamton, the city’s mayor tasked Marinich with building the city’s 9/11 memorial.

“We were able to secure, at that time, one of the first sections of the steel I-beams from the North Tower. I helped organize and get a lot of the local help — immense local help — we built a 9/11 memorial right next to the city hall in Binghamton,” he said. “I’m going back this year for the 20th anniversary.”

While in Binghamton, he plans to watch a production of the play, “The Guys,” a story of a New York fire captain who has to write several eulogies for his fallen firefighters.

Marinich said he sometimes presents his story of what happened on 9/11 to local groups “to help understand what happened that day and then again to realize what we lost.”

When asked if there were any different feelings for the anniversary, Marinich said “No, every year at this time, I think about those days.”

“There’s times when I see tragedies going on around the world and things like that, I just think, it was a horrific day,” he said. “It was a sad day for us. It took away, prior to COVID, many of our freedoms. My grandkids won’t know the freedom I had growing up where I could just walk into a bank, walk into a government building, I could walk into the airport no ifs, and or buts about it.

“After 9/11, our lives changed, our freedoms were taken away by that terrorist attack.”