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September 27th, 2021

911 street levelWorkers sift through the wreckage of the World Trader Center after a terrorist attack 20 years ago. First responders headed into the buildings in an effort to help those in need before the buildings collapsed. Courtesy photoEARL WATT • Leader & Times


While most people ran away from the world Trade Center 20 years ago, first responders ran in, and many would become victims when the Twin Towers collapsed.

Seward County EMS Director John Ralston recalled how emergency personnel put themselves at risk that day.

“We thought it was an accident,” Ralston said. “After the second plane hit, we knew something was up. We were glued to the news and got instant information of what was going on. A lot of us were upset, worrying about our fellow workers in harm’s way. Out of all the buildings, those were the worst ones. They are tall, and you can’t get there quick. You can’t get to the injured people close to the top of the building.”

The response began immediately, including forcing all planes out of the sky. 

“That was something we had never experienced before,” Ralston said. “You look at a map with all the air travel today and how many planes in the air at any given time and to shut down all flights — it was completely blank in the sky. The sheer massive response of it was impressive.”

When the buildings fell, Ralston knew it was unlikely everyone was evacuated. 

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“You hope they got it cleared,” he said. “You don’t know how far they were. We were getting information through the news. Your immediate thought is how many got cleared, how many did they get out? People have tried before to take that building down and couldn’t. That was the belief. It was well structured. There was an explosion in the basement, and it never came down. It was a surprise to those responders as it was to us. Once that started falling it was going to be devastating.”

Making sure a scene is secure came about after 9/11. First responders now are more aware of the environment around them.

“The thought processes changed overnight,” Ralston said. “What we trained for for years, scene safety, is really the forefront of all responses. You make it as safe as you can. I don’t know if you could have made that safe.”

Ralston also started to consider other targets, even the possibility of local targets.

“My first thought is how broad is this?” he said. “What are some of the key places in America they would attempt? National Helium always come to mind. Someone would want to shut that down. You start thinking what happens if this or that. You don’t think someone will do it, but you prepare if it does happen.”

Ralston also recalled how intelligence gathering improved after 9/11.

“The improvement on intelligence has done a lot,” he said. “They are monitoring foreign communications and to give people a warning of a possible threat. As we get better at monitoring, they will get better at hiding it. But the ability to gather intelligence is better today. I don’t want to say they were asleep at the wheel, but there were clues and they missed them. They were looking in a different area. Intelligence gathering is better.”

Ralston also said that it was important not to let the terrorists achieve their goal.

“Don’t let them accomplish what they wanted,” he said. “The big thing was it was to minimize our freedoms. You don’t let them take those away because of that act. You can have your freedom and be vigilant. The old adage of knowing your neighbors and friends, and we need to make sure we do that and not just let anyone and everyone come to the United States. I’m not talking about immigration, but we do need to document them. They are mixed in with those we welcome in. You have to be vigilant that we don’t let a terroristic minded-person in, or two or three, and now you’ve got a threat.”

Ralston also saw similarities between what those first responders faced on 9/11 and health care workers dealing with COVID today.

“The biggest emotion was the response by emergency services,” he said. “Not PTSD, but why do I do what I do when they treat you the way they do? It’s a response to a mass casualty. It affects whether you want to do this job or something else. You see that with COVID. Nurses are falling out by the ranks. The maginitude of what you deal with is similar to that. You saw that with 9/11. America came together. It was good to see that, but I don’t want to have to bring us together by blowing something up.”

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