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‘It was so very quiet’: Clark Cowlitz fire chief remembers watching Sept. 11 attacks unfold

John Nohr reflects on how 9/11 changed job for all first responders

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
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Clark-Cowlitz Fire and Rescue Chief John Nohr reflects on his experience as a firefighter during and after the 9/11 attacks in an interview on Aug. 31 at Fire Station 21 in Ridgefield. Nohr was a fire captain in Portland and working on the morning of the terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, including more than 400 first responders.
Clark-Cowlitz Fire and Rescue Chief John Nohr reflects on his experience as a firefighter during and after the 9/11 attacks in an interview on Aug. 31 at Fire Station 21 in Ridgefield. Nohr was a fire captain in Portland and working on the morning of the terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, including more than 400 first responders. (Joshua Hart/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A familiar and melancholic feeling struck Clark-Cowlitz Fire Rescue Chief John Nohr on the night of July 23 — when Clark County sheriff’s Detective Jeremy Brown was killed in the line of duty.

It was the same feeling he had in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks at the World Trade Center in New York City, in which hundreds of emergency workers lost their lives.

“I was incredibly disappointed, incredibly sad, and it was the same feeling I had back in 2001,” Nohr said of Brown’s death.

“This was just somebody doing their job, and even when you know that it’s dangerous work, when somebody dies senselessly or at the hands of another person while doing their job, it just strikes me harder than something else,” he said.

Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people, including more than 400 first responders.

‘Sinking, sickening feeling’

Nohr, a fire captain in Portland at the time, was working that morning. He took an overtime shift the day before at a station in north Portland.

He awoke when the phone rang around 5:45 a.m. It was the on-duty deputy chief, asking if Nohr was watching the news: An airplane had struck one of the World Trade Center towers.

Because the World Trade Center had been the target of a terrorist attack in February 1993, Nohr said he knew there was a possibility it could happen again. He got up, dressed and went to the day room with the other firefighters. As they watched the news, the second plane hit.

“At that point, we knew something’s going on here, and we need to be really aware of it,” Nohr said. “It was unsettling, for sure. It creates some confusion. You always have to think more broadly about, how isolated is this? Is this something that’s going on nationwide? Is this something we need to be thinking about here?

“I got on the speaker and said, ‘Hey everybody, all hands. It’s time to get up. It looks like the World Trade Center has been attacked,’” he recalled.

Nohr said he wanted everyone to be prepared. He thought about the 42-story U.S. Bancorp Tower, just a few blocks away from Portland’s Fire Station 1, and the 40-story Wells Fargo Center, both easy targets to see.

“I think the most unsettling part for me during all of this was when the first tower collapsed and then subsequently the second tower collapsed,” Nohr said.

Firefighters are trained to put out fires in high-rise buildings, Nohr said, which have fire protection systems in place to keep them from collapsing, including sprinklers, steel framing and spray-applied fire-resistive materials.

“Once you see the collapse of the building — and you know fire department operations and you know that up to several hundred firefighters are in those buildings trying to get people evacuated out — it was just a very sinking, sickening feeling. Those buildings aren’t supposed to collapse, and they just did,” Nohr said.

“The reality is, when they build a building, they don’t think someone is going to intentionally fly an airplane into it, either,” he added.

Nohr called his wife and said he was staying in Portland in case something happened locally. But hours passed, and the air space was shut down, so he headed home to Clark County. At the time, he lived on small acreage in what’s now Fisher’s Landing in east Vancouver.

“What I remembered about it, it was so very quiet. In that area, if you look to the south, I would often see airplanes landing or taking off from Portland airport. … You just get used to airplane noise,” he said. “It was deafeningly, deafeningly silent — no airplane noise. Nothing out there. It just seemed like nothing was moving anywhere, no traffic on the street.”

Then, two Oregon Air National Guard jets flew fast and low over his house.

“It startled my wife to the point that she started crying, and it startled the children and they were crying, and of course, the dog got upset because everyone is crying. I had to tell them, ‘It’s OK. We’re safe here. We’re at home, and it’s going to be all right.’”

The ‘eyes and ears’

In the days and months that followed, there was a lot of talk among the firefighters, Nohr said: “What does this mean? What do we need to be watching out for?”

Nohr said he never imagined that something to that degree could happen. Terrorism was on their radar and it was something they were training for, he said, but it really ramped up after 9/11.

“I can’t say that anyone thought about flying airplanes into buildings. It just wasn’t something we thought of. We thought about car bombs, truck bombs, because there had been a truck used in Oklahoma City in 1994, and the year earlier at the World Trade Center,” he said.

At the time, the fire agency identified 76 high-rise buildings — seven floors and above — in Portland that did not have sprinkler systems. Nohr said they had a certain amount of time to get in and fight a fire before it would harm the buildings’ steel.

He later learned the World Trade Center was constructed with a center steel core that couldn’t hold the weight of the buildings’ oversized floors, so thin steel tubes were used on the building’s perimeter to help. He said they looked at Portland’s buildings and determined none were built the same way.

Nohr said they also started to re-evaluate calls for service and whether they could be booby traps for first responders. They started carrying radiation detectors in their rigs, for anything that appeared to be an explosion.

“We really had to raise our total awareness of what’s going on. … I think it’s still around as a saying, ‘If you see something, say something.’ The fire service really became part of the eyes and ears of all of the responders out there,” he said.

The fire service was recognized as being critical to the first response of communities throughout the country, Nohr said. Fire services throughout the nation received grant money to help train, equip and prepare them for that first responder role.

They received training on domestic and international terrorism awareness, Nohr said — improvised explosive devices, chemical releases and biological threats.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, some firefighters took military leave of absence to join the National Guard as reservists or become active duty, Nohr said.

“It’s one thing to be attacked by Mother Nature … it’s another thing to be attacked by another country. So people’s sense of, ‘We must do something for this right now,’ that was very high,” he said.

For Nohr, his guard went up, and it never came down. It makes him feel safer, though, he said.

“I think when you have things like this happen, some of the original feelings of anger and disappointment, they may ease a little bit. But you never really forget it, and you always want to take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Nohr said. “I think it’s easy to kind of say, ‘Well these things happened a long time ago,’ but they can repeat.”

He encouraged people to always be vigilant, because it’s a group effort to keep the community safe, he said.

Nohr, who’s been a firefighter since 1985, said he feels fortunate to be a part of the fire service — “that we’re doing our part to make our community safe on a whole.”

“Those were people doing their job,” he said of the first responders who died in 9/11. “The fire service would be right in there again, right in the middle of the mix. That’s who we are as responders and that’s what we’re going to do, is try to help out in any way that we can.”