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A day of remembrance and training

It’s no coincidence Smithfield’s Volunteer Fire Department scheduled a live-fire training exercise in its new “burn building” for the morning of Sept. 11.

On that day, 20 years ago, 343 firefighters died trying to evacuate people and extinguish the flames coming from New York City’s World Trade Center after al-Qaida terrorists hijacked two airplanes and forced them to collide with the skyscraper’s north and south towers.

“That’s kind of why we did this today,” said Smithfield VFD firefighter Greg Sellers.

The burn building, also sometimes called a “burn can,” is a two-story structure behind the South Church Street fire station made from metal shipping containers. Construction, he said, was just finished the evening of Sept. 10.

It’s laid out like a typical house, with rooms, hallways, a staircase and donated furniture and appliances. It’s designed to be burned, and to replicate the smoky, blackout-visibility interior conditions firefighters are likely to encounter when called to the scene of an emergency.

“A lot of times it’s hard to reproduce those conditions, but we’re trying to do that in our burn cans out back,” said Smithfield VFD Lt. Chris Zach, an instructor for Real Fire Training LLC. “We’re trying to let those students feel the heat and the smoke and not be able to see anything … it’s very hard to operate in those conditions unless you’ve been there.”

Due to the repeated setting of fires, portions of the wooden interior will have to be rebuilt over time, but the metal structure itself is intended to be permanent.

“This is here for, hopefully, several years,” Sellers said.

Before the two-story burn building was built, the department used a one-story building that had only two rooms.

“Now we’ve got two stories with multiple rooms,” he said.

The two-day training weekend was open to professional and volunteer firefighters from across Virginia. Participating departments included Smithfield, Charlottesville, Chesapeake, Chesterfield, Salem and Fairfax, among others.

“This is what we call a street tactics class, where guys who have experience, have training, come in and they hone their skills,” Sellers said.

At 8:46 a.m., the exact time American Airlines Flight 11 struck the north tower of the World Trade Center, the firefighters paused their training and gathered outside the fire station for a moment of silence to honor the victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Simultaneously, members of the Carrollton Volunteer Fire Department and Isle of Wight County’s Fire Recruit Academy Class of 2021-2022 had gathered for a memorial ceremony at the line-of-duty death memorial at the base of the James River Bridge.

“Never forget, that was what we said; that was the motto we said the day of and then after,” said Joel Acree, who represents the county’s Windsor District on its Board of Supervisors, part of which extends into Carrollton.

“My son was just a year old,” Acree continued. “My wife had met me over on the Peninsula to help out on my part-time job and my pager … it went off. Chief [Scott] Brower was saying something about towers and something about planes and you’ve got to remember, you know, this had never happened, never has it happened since.”

Upon hearing the news, he remembers thinking, “Where are my children?”

“Everybody who remembers that day, we didn’t know, were they going to hit other targets? It was a moment frozen in time for me,” Acree said.

He then spoke of Sept. 12, 2001, the day after the attacks.

“I don’t remember the day after being about what my skin looked like, what my gender was, what my identity was … that day, I was like everybody else in this country; I was an American,” Acree said.

“We will not forget,” he repeated. “It’s not a slogan. It’s not a T-shirt. It’s not a motto … we were all Americans. That’s what we’ve got to remember.”

“On that day, when the world was filled with darkness … there was a source of light that rode to that call. It was our FDNY,” said Georgie Petrakos, a member of the Fire Recruit Academy class who also serves as chaplain for the Carrollton VFD.

“We give thanks for those who rode on those trucks not knowing what they were expecting … those who ascended the towers not knowing if they would make it down,” he added. “We thank those who continuously struggle … so many people are still struggling with the aftereffects, of cancer, of the toxicity of the rubble.”

“Their primary goal was to go in and save people, and they did,” said Carrollton VFD Deputy Chief Scott Brower. “Their primary goal was to go in and stop this horrendous fire. They couldn’t. … They gave their all. Unfortunately, we lost them. Afterwards, of course, our country retaliated. We went to war. In that time, we lost brave soldiers fighting for our rights and for our freedoms and the freedoms of others. All this was done by people who give.”

The ceremony concluded with five members of the Fire Recruit Academy class each reading one of the five names inscribed on the county’s line-of-duty death memorial:

  • Smithfield Police Chief Thadeus Davis succumbed May 16, 1902 to an accidental gunshot wound he’d sustained two days earlier at age 39 while escorting a man wanted for murder in Isle of Wight County to the jail that had existed in the town at the time.
  • Claude Taylor, the Carrollton VFD’s first chief, died Jan. 5, 1969 of a heart attack at age 62 while combating a house fire.
  • Early Edward Blount Sr., the first Black deputy to serve in Isle of Wight County’s Sheriff’s Office, died Nov. 8, 1969, in a car crash while pursuing a man wanted for traffic violations.
  • John Paul “J.P.” Memory II, a Carrollton VFD firefighter and emergency medical technician, died Sept. 16, 2006, at age 19 of heart failure while demonstrating vehicle emergency extrication techniques at a training exercise.
  • Virginia State Police Trooper Robert A. Hill Sr. was struck and killed Nov. 24, 2006, at age 42 when a vehicle ran off the road while he was conducting a traffic stop on U.S. Route 58.