2021 | News

Twenty years after 9/11, fire chiefs remember rescue efforts by Kensington department

Volunteer fire department aided in search and rescue at Pentagon, raised more than $28,000 for New York victims

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Firefighter James Bennett rings the “firefighter’s bell” in Kensington on Saturday. The bell honors the firefighters who died on Sept. 11, 2001 as well as those who returned from duty safely.

Photos by Dan Schere

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Jim Stanton was in the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department’s station on Connecticut Avenue meeting with contractors who had recently worked on renovations to the station.

Stanton, the chief of the volunteer fire department at the time, said someone interrupted the meeting to tell them that an airplane had struck the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City.

“We said ‘Wow. Well that’s New York. They can handle that. They’re the best fire department around,’” he recalled Saturday.

Stanton was one of several first responders and other officials who spoke during a ceremony Saturday at Kensington’s fire station to mark the 20-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

Members from multiple fire departments in Montgomery County, including Kensington’s, the Wheaton Volunteer Rescue Squad and Rockville Volunteer Fire Department attended, as well as U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

When the second plane struck the World Trade Center, Stanton said he and the other firefighters knew things were much more serious. He contacted off-duty volunteers because there was a sense of “immediate danger” to both Montgomery County and the D.C. region.

When the hijackers flew another plane into the Pentagon, shortly following the attacks in New York, Kensington was one of the fire departments from around the region called upon to help with the search and rescue efforts, Stanton said.

“Everyone down to the last person wanted to go, but I could only send so many,” he said.

Former Kensington fire chief Jim Stanton.

Each Fire & Rescue unit was staffed with the maximum number of people who could ride safely, Stanton said. He recalled seeing a dozen crew members backed into an ambulance that normally seats four.

“I took a deep breath, I closed the door, and I told them to go ahead and go,” he said.

Kensington firefighters worked the night shift on 9/11, Stanton said. By that point, the fire at the Pentagon was mainly under control and the main tasks his volunteers carried out were search and rescue, placement of lights and securing the scene to keep out “unwanted people” and preserve evidence.

“Although these tasks may seem trivial, these are things that had to be done. And we were proud as members of Kensington to do those tasks,” he said.

The next evening, Kensington firefighters returned to the Pentagon, Stanton said.

The response from Kensington’s firefighters on 9/11 was instant, Montgomery County Division Chief of Volunteer Services Mike Kelley said on Saturday.

“Without even putting out a call for help for our members, almost every single one of them came to the fire station at that day. They dropped what they were doing and said: What can I do to help?” he said.

Kelley, who was an officer with Kensington’s department at the time, said several crew members decided to collect money in boots from motorists on Connecticut Avenue.

“The police called from the Bethesda District and said, ‘Can you keep the traffic moving through Kensington?’ Because it was backed up to Saul Road,” Kelley said.

Over several days following the attacks, the department raised more than $28,000, Kelley said. The following January, some of the firefighters traveled to New York to donate the money to a widows-and-orphans benefit fund for police officers and firefighters who died in the attack on the World Trade Center. The fundraising effort, he said, remains a point of pride for the department.

Van Hollen was also among the speakers during Saturday’s ceremony, and thanked the Montgomery County firefighters both for their efforts on 9/11, and their daily service.

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen.

“You are the folks putting yourselves in harm’s way every day, waking up every day not knowing exactly what that day will bring, running toward danger while others are running away from it. That’s true today, just as it was on the Sept. 11 morning 20 years ago,” he said.

Van Hollen remembered when a 9/11 memorial was erected outside the Kensington fire station almost a decade after the attacks. The memorial includes a steel beam from the north tower of the World Trade Center, a slab of limestone from the Pentagon and a plaque honoring the victims aboard the fourth plane that crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pa.

A memorial to the victims who died at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 outside the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department on Connecticut Avenue.

“It’s not just a memorial to the past. It’s a living memorial, and an archive,” he said.

As the ceremony concluded, county firefighter James Bennett rang the “firefighter’s bell” to honor both the firefighters who perished on 9/11, and those who returned from duty safely. A group of bagpipers and drummers followed by playing “Amazing Grace.”

Montgomery County Firefighters Pipes and Drums.

Dan Schere can be reached at daniel.schere@bethesdamagazine.com