“Turn around. You will want to see this,” Samuel Erwin said.
“Oh, wow,” responded James Friedlander, the brim of his FDNY cap tipping upward as he cast his eyes up.
They saw a large steel plate from the World Trade Center reading “Never Forget New York” above them on one of the most trafficked passageways aboard the USS New York. Erwin and Friedlander were among roughly 20 New York firefighters and police officers who on Sunday boarded the Norfolk-based amphibious warship that set sail Monday for its namesake city to participate in a weeklong Veterans Day celebration.
The USS New York is a tribute to the 2,996 lives lost during the 9/11 attacks. “Never forget,” say placards, murals and small stickers decorating the walls throughout the ship. The ship was made with 7.5 tons of steel salvaged from the ruins of the World Trade Center. The strength of the crew, the motto reads, was forged through sacrifice.
Having traded one uniform for another, many of the first responders embarking with the crew don’t need any help remembering 9/11, nor do they need a lesson on sacrifice.
“The firefighting community and the military community are tightly connected — woven together,” William “Bill” Hayes said.
Hayes was among the hundreds of firefighters who responded to the 9/11 attacks in 2001. He was also a firefighter in February 1993 when a van rigged with a bomb exploded in a parking garage beneath the World Trade Center. Six people and one unborn baby died in the bombing as a massive eruption carved out a nearly 100-foot crater several stories deep and several more high.
But in 1980, more than a decade before the 1993 bombing, Hayes enlisted in the Navy. He served aboard the USS Enterprise, the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Hayes later switched to the Navy Reserve and eventually to the Air National Guard. He has a combined 40 years of military service under his belt, retiring as a senior master sergeant.
Today, Hayes is the commander of New York-based Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 12033. Hayes, a founding member of the chapter, said the original members were all New York firefighters as well as combat veterans.
“We all live a life of service. A lot of us are legacy veterans and legacy firefighters,” Hayes said. “It’s about protecting us on the streets of New York and protecting the country by going overseas.”
For Erwin, this week’s embark marks his third time aboard the USS New York. A 19-year firefighting veteran, Erwin is currently with New York City Fire Department’s Squad 18. He has also served with the Marine Corps Reserve since 1993.
“I was at the ship’s commissioning in 2009, actually. I saw that piece of steel laid out on the deck; to see it up there is really something,” Erwin said, motioning to the large steel plate from the World Trade Center.
Erwin has deployed twice, most recently in the summer of 2022. Coincidentally, he was assigned to the USS New York. Erwin’s familiarity with the ship helped him guide Hayes and Friedlander around Sunday as they settled in, getting to know the place they would call home for the next three days.
He explained what the ship looks like during a deployment, describing the aircraft and military vehicles that would typically be on board. As the trio passed through a section of the tightly packed living quarters, they joked about the twin-sized bunk beds, which Erwin said were “not so bad.”
“The knee-knockers on the other hand …,” Erwin laughed, referencing the elevated iron ledge of the watertight doorways. The term “knee knocker” comes from when crewmates forget about the ledges and bang their shins as they walk through.
Erwin is set to retire as a sergeant major from the Marine Corps Reserve in January. He will be joined on board by his Marine Corps squadron, giving him one last underway beside his military crewmates.
“It is like my two worlds are coming together,” Erwin said.
As Erwin, Friedlander and Hayes toured the ship, they reflected on the first responders who died at the World Trade Center. They reflected on the friends whose family members died in the 9/11 attacks. They reflected on the firefighters called to military service following the attacks who never returned. And they reflected on those lost to 9/11-connected disease in the years since.
“A life of service is such a small sacrifice in comparison to the lives lost here on 9/11 and the lives lost around the world,” Erwin said.
In a corridor toward the bow of the ship is a tribute to all who died in the 9/11 attacks. Friedlander leaned in close to a metal plaque inscribed with 2,996 names. It only took him a moment to find what he was looking for.
“This is the name of the father of a guy I went to school with,” Friedlander said, touching the name.
Friedlander was still in high school in 2001. A member of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, he was already considering joining the military at the time. He ultimately became a New York firefighter, working today as part of Engine 95 in Manhattan. He had also committed to a reserve force, the Air National Guard, and retired as a staff sergeant after more than 20 years.
The first responders will man the rails alongside the crew on Wednesday as the USS New York comes into New York Harbor. The feeling, they each agreed, is sure to be unimaginable.
“To find the name of my friend’s father on the tribute wall and see all the tributes to the firefighters — this it what it is all about,” Friedlander said. “This is why we all do what we do — why we did what we did.”
Caitlyn Burchett, firstname.lastname@example.org