9/11 attacks: How Birmingham supported the New York firefighters
West Midlands firefighter Paul Smith was made an honorary member of New York City Fire Department after he led a campaign in Birmingham to help the widows and families of his US colleagues who died trying to save others in the 9/11 terror attacks.
Watching fellow firefighters in New York bravely battle the inferno of one of the worst terror attacks ever witnessed by mankind is an image that will haunt Paul Smith forever.
The West Midlands commander was on training duty in the yard at Northfield Fire Station on the afternoon of September 11 in 2021 when his boss shouted out: “You had better come and look at this right now.”
When he arrived in front of the TV screen Paul could barely believe his eyes as he saw one of the world-famous Twin Towers ablaze in Manhattan.
The horror continued as the other tower was hit by a second plane and 2,977 innocent victims lost their lives.
Paul knew that he had to do something to help.
“I was thousands of miles away, but I just felt that there had to be a way we could reach out and support them,” he told BirminghamWorld.
The father-of-two set up a campaign with fellow West Midlands fire fighters to raise money for the widows and families of the 343 fire fighters who lost their lives as they fought to save others - despite having no knowledge or experience of an atrocity on this scale.
Paul and the teams raised £240,000 in total, through car washes to start with - but as word spread more people joined the drive with many dropping cash into buckets across Birmingham.
“We were doing bucket shakes in the city centre and most fire stations in the region did a car wash as well to raise money for the fund.
“On a usual charity car wash day we would raise around £300, but on one day in Northfield we raised £4,000.
“We got some people jumping off buses to donate when they saw what we were doing. The generosity of the people across the West Midlands was outstanding.”
Following the fundraiser, Chief Fire Officer Ken Knight and Councillor Jim Whorwood, the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, flew to New York in 2002 to present the cheque of £240,000 to the department - and with New York’s historic connection to St Patrick’s Day, the firefighters involved in the rescue operation were invited to Birmingham to celebrate the day.
“We thought it be wonderful if they could witness first-hand the support and the emotion of what was felt by the people here for their grief, and we thought it would be a great idea if we could invite some of the firefighters over here and St Patricks Day felt like a good vehicle for that,” said Paul.
It gave Andy, Greg, Jimmy Bevers and Mark Jarmek, from Vinegar Hill Fire House in Harlem, the chance to personally thank their West Midland counterparts as well as the public.
Paul said: “Their own quote was ‘on September 11 we saw the worst of humanity and in Birmingham we had seen the best of it.’”
Paul and Andy have since become close friends; their families have been on holidays together and Andy and Jimmy Bevers are godfathers to Paul and his wife Maggie’s second child Joseph.
Paul and Andy speak to each other twice a week, and Paul provided a glimpse of what Andy and his colleagues had to deal with following the attacks in 2001.
“It was a nine-month recovery operation of digging through the pile at ground zero, as it was known. So nearly two million tonnes of debris needed to be removed to find even the slightest body part that they could identify someone with, and they used to do 12 hour shifts down there and they’d be exhausted.
“Then they would come away and there would be another fire fighter who might be looking for a son or a brother and they would feel guilty if they had finished a shift because they were exhausted. They were attending funerals on a weekly basis and doing the recovery at the same time - it was physically and mentally exhausting.”
On his second visit to New York, Paul was presented with a plaque from the FDNY as a thank you the support his fire department and city had shown to them.
“It blew me away,” said Paul. “But that plaque is an appreciation of the people of Birmingham as much as it is for me.”
Paul is 55 in December and is due to retire in March 2022. Andy and other members of the FDNY will be coming back to Birmingham to celebrate his career and take part in the St Patrick’s Day parade, 20 years on from when they first met.