A Laotian-American firefighter behind the rescue efforts following the terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center says that 10 years on, he has learned to approach life with a greater sense of duty.
Andrew Rasavongseuk, 37, said his company, Squad 270 based in Brooklyn, was called in to clear the wreckage of the Trade Towers and search for survivors after two airplanes hijacked by terrorists plowed into the buildings on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I don’t consider myself a hero or anything like that. I’m just a fireman. I was there to do a job. We did the best that we could under the conditions that we had,” Rasavongseuk said.
He said the attacks that led to the deaths of some 3,200 people, including those who died in a separate raid on the Pentagon in Washington and another crash of a hijacked plane in Pennsylvania, should serve as powerful reminder of preparedness, respect for life, duty above self and compassion.
“You have to live your life every day and be happy with what you have, love the people that you love, and just try to be the best person you can be.”
“Every day that I put my uniform on—every day I try to give 110 percent. That’s all that I can do.”
As a regular duty firefighter, Rasavongseuk did not have the technical expertise to immediately plunge into the rescue efforts at Ground Zero, where the towers had originally stood, but eventually did join fire crews in the area after assisting in digging operations further from the epicenter.
Rasavongseuk was one of some 2,000 firefighters who traveled from the different boroughs of the city to assist in the search and rescue efforts in Lower Manhattan. During the rescue operations, 343 firefighters lost their lives—40 of whom were personal friends of his.
Many of the men who had worked closer to the site later suffered from cancer and other complications connected to the foul air and other environmental hazards while performing their duties.
Rasavongseuk recalled the eerie feeling he experienced as he approached the scene of the disaster on a bright sunny day.
“It was a very normal, typical September day. It was nice. They sun was out. It was beautiful. And then, when we crossed the bridge, it was snowing. All the stuff was flying down—all the asbestos. All the paper—everything,” he said.
“I can never forget that scene because when you started walking towards the Trade Center, it was snowing ashes. You couldn’t even breathe.”
“Some people you saw that you knew—it looked like they had just gone to war. They had a 1,000 mile stare. They didn’t know what was going on—they just stared into space … It was like out of a movie.”
He said that the remnants of the fallen towers made rescue efforts extremely dangerous.
“When I got there, the South Tower had already fallen and then when I got over the bridge, the North Tower fell … We got a lot of the dust. Thank God they held us back.”
Rasavongseuk said it was difficult to move any of the debris and that the firemen spent most of their time trying to create small pockets of space through digging, all the while listening to hear if anyone was there.
“If you found something, you reported it, but at that point there was so much to dig through before you could even find a victim,” he said.
“There was a lot of emotion. A lot of people were mad. But we were more focused on trying to find our brothers. We just wanted to get in there and get people out and get our brothers out.”
“The firemen that went in initially—I knew a lot of them. I knew about forty guys [who later died].”
Rasavongseuk said the last of the fires were eventually extinguished nearly one month after the attack.
He worked the site from September until the end of December, with few days off, in shifts that began at 5:00 a.m. He would rarely return home before 8:00 p.m. each night.
But Rasavongseuk said he had only contributed a small effort to rebuilding America’s sense of strength and pride in the aftermath of the attacks.
“As far as [assisting] the city, I’m doing something that I love. Am I serving the city? Yes. Am I serving the people? Yes.”
“But the people in the military are the people that you have to respect. They’re protecting our freedom. They’re the ones who are giving their lives every day.”
Nearly 250,000 Laotians live in the U.S., many of whom were refugees who escaped Laos during the 1970s when the communists seized power.
One of the largest subsets of the Laotian-American community is the Hmong ethnic minority, a group which assisted in a 15-year CIA-sponsored secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War.
The largest concentrations of Hmong in America are based in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
Reported by Somnet Inthapannha for RFA’s Lao service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.