“A wise man once said that if you do something that you enjoy you will never work a day in your life,” paraphrased Key West Fire Chief David Fraga. “I have been fortunate.”
After nearly four decades with the Key West Fire Department he echoes many of the sentiments offered by firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, and law enforcement officers throughout Monroe County.
“I like helping people.”
“This fits my personality.”
“We are like family.”
This coming Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
411 first responders died that day – men and women who do not think twice about entering a hostile environment or dangerous situation.
They are our first responders.
Big Coppitt Volunteer Fire Rescue EMT
Originally from Topsail Beach, NC, Tim Whisenhunt’s career in public service began 20 years ago as a volunteer firefighter and has come full circle. Currently, he serves in the US Navy and pulls double duty as a volunteer EMT at the Big Coppitt Fire Station. His resume includes stints as a firefighter and police officer in Topsail Beach. As a cop, he was coming off the night shift on September 11, and awoke in the early afternoon to the live, televised aftermath of the greatest terrorist strikes on American soil.
“I called my chief,” recalled Whisenhunt, who was promptly called back to service. “I went back into town to implement an infrastructure protection plan.”
Ten years later, he says the best part of his job occurs when a life is saved and the patient returns to the station to say, “thank you.”
“It is the most sincere ‘thank you’ you can get,” he said. “They may not remember who you are, but they remember what you did.”
Jamie Bishop has nearly two decades of fire rescue experience.
“I like helping people and I enjoy meeting people,” she said of her profession. “And it gives you a chance to do something for your community.” She has called the Keys her home for more than 40 years and her son, daughter and 8 year old grand daughter reside in Monroe County.
She was shopping at Walmart somewhere in the central part of Florida on morning of the attacks.
Her lieutenant, Mike Saunders, said, “I always think about those guys because it could’ve been us. You see these photos and movies – those guys knew what was going to happen.”
Both grieve for their fallen comrades, but neither want to relive the events – unlike the Ground Zero responders who continue to live with the physical affects and memories a decade later.
“Its going to be an ongoing issue for those guys,” Bishop said. “Its sad because those guys have a daily reminder of it.”
But they endure.
When Saunders’ wife asks how, he simply says, “Its just our job. Without us, when someone calls 911 there would be no one there.”
26 year old Reynaldo Garcia (26) joined the Monroe County Fire & Rescue two years ago.
“I like to helping others when they are at their worst,” he said. “I enjoy coming to work and doing it on a daily basis. This fits my personality.”
Garcia was in his sophomore science class when terrorists coordinated a surprise attack on the World Trade Center.
“I will never forget that day,” he said. “We talk about it. We Try and honor them by doing the best we can. We are not in New York, but we can honor them by doing the best that we can. Everyday is different. You have to be trained and ready for it.
Billy Lyden left his family’s Homestead nursery to pursue a career in public service.
“I just wanted to so something more meaningful and that contributed to society,” he said.
His sentiments regarding his career are similar to most other firefighters, police officers, and first responders – he appreciates the opportunity to help others and relishes in the daily, life or death, challenges.
Monroe County Fire Rescue Lt. Chris Cane (27) was born and raised in the Keys and entered public service through the youth Explorer program. He was in computer class at Key West High when the first plane struck the World Trade Center.
He is proud to work with the men and women of Monroe County Fire Rescue.
“Everyone that we work is professional,” he said. “We all take the job seriously, but we are all friends back at the station.”
Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Charlene Sprinkle-Huff will receive her lieutenant bars in October. She is a seventh generation Conch who continues to make her home in Marathon with her husband.
A 17 year veteran with the MCSO, she started out as a cadet and was working the midnight shift in the hours leading up the 9/11 attacks. She remembers laying in bed when the news first awoke her from sleep.
“I kept hearing all this stuff on radio,” she said. “All this devastation and all these deaths.”
She will mark the tenth anniversary of the attacks with a breakfast at Island Christian Church prepared for the county’s first responders.
The Key West Fire Department is led by a group of men with more than 120 years of combined fire rescue experience including, from left Marcus Del Valle (Fire Marshal), Michael Davila (Operations), and Fire Chief David Fraga. (Not pictured: Craig Marston, Division Chief of Emergency Management and Training.)
This coming Sunday, Del Valle will be thinking about a fellow comrade who recently succumbed to disease contracted from the toxic environment of Ground Zero.
William “Billy” Quick (55) passed away this past December. He was a 23 veteran of the New York Fire Department who spent 60 days at Ground Zero during the recovery process following the September 11 attacks.
“I talked to him a couple times every month,” said Del Valle. “He was one of the highest decorated firefighters for the city of New York. In the end, he passed away hooked up to dialysis.”
Chief Fraga said the number of responders who lost their lives on that fateful day is yet to be determined – even ten years later.
“The obvious victims of 9/11, we have an idea of who they are and what they did,” he said. “But I must tell you, a lot of the first responders that went to the site – a lot of those have already died and a lot are dealing with some serious medical issues as a result of exposure, contamination and being part of that environment.”
Del Valle reports there are approximately 130-140 World Trade Center first responders repose in the Keys.