Sept. 11, 2001, began as a typical day for Indianapolis firefighter Richard Washington. He was at his part time job reading meters for Citizens Gas. He received a phone call from the Indiana Task Force One office telling him the group was on standby because a plane crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York City.
Oblivious to the severity of the crash, Washington continued working, secure in his skills as a medical specialist if he were to be called up. After all, he and other selected members of the task force had plenty of training.
He didn't get far in finishing the meter when he got a second call saying that another plane had hit the towers and that more than likely the task force would be deployed to New York.
Now his curiosity was piqued. He knew the task force was only called during major disasters and if he had been at his primary job at Station No. 33, he and his fellow Indianapolis firefighters would have plenty of TVs to find out what was going on.
He tried to keep working, but his mind was going a mile a minute. He tried to process the phone call and simultaneously made a mental "to do" list and worried about his responsibilities.
"How am I going to stop what I'm doing, get to the gas company, get home and get my stuff? Ahh! My son Corey is in school. How am I going to work that out? I'm getting married in a few weeks. I wonder how long we're going to be there?"
Washington pulled himself together and called his boss at the gas company to let them know he was being deployed. He received orders to take his equipment to the 71st and Keystone fire station.
At the station, everyone was watching the news coverage and Washington was somewhat at ease because at least he knew what had happened. This is bad, he thought.
Being a trained fire fighter, a medical specialist and a part of Indiana's tragedy task force, Washington was used to the danger associated with his profession, but this time was different. This time it was a building crashing to the ground. This time it was his fellow fire fighters...his brothers...dying.
Riding to pick up his pre-packed task force gear, Washington called his son's school, his parents and his fiancée Nancy to let them know he was heading to New York.
He grabbed his belongings and headed to the airport. When he saw buses and trailers pull up, he knew he was in for a long ride.
It was only three hours between the first phone call and pulling out of the airport to head to New York. Washington had processed the tragedy as much as he'd allow himself to. He just wanted to block it all out.
The bus ride to Ground Zero was long and quiet. While others couldn't tear themselves away from the news coverage, Washington steered clear of the "details." He wanted to be mentally and physically able to deal with what had happened. He believed the only way to get through this tragedy was to stay focused.
He thought, "I need to get some rest because once we get there, we're going to be put to work."
The Indiana Task Force One traveled through the night, arriving in New York the following morning. Coming across a bridge, Washington was able to see first hand the smoke, debris and damage the terrorists had left behind. He could no longer turn off the TV or look away. This is real. He thinks "stay focused."
Washington and the other emergency responders from around the country arrived at the Javits Convention Center to check in and wait for their orders.
One of the first pieces of news he received was that the task forces that had come to help would be needed for about two weeks, which is beyond the norms of a typical deployment.
Problem: he only packed for 10 days and he was getting married on Sept. 29. He made up his mind that there was nothing he could do.
The orders from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) were: part of Indiana would work as the day crew, part would work as the night crew - each working 12-hour shifts. Washington was assigned to the day crew.
He later learned that the divided group would sleep at the Javits Center, but report daily to New York Fire Station No. 10. He also learned that Station 10 lost a large number of men during the attacks.
Washington's first mission along with a search team, rescue dogs and other medical specialists was to search for bodies at the federal building.
His first thought: "We're not going to find anybody."
Nonetheless they trekked through the smoke, dust, paper and debris in search of alive or dead bodies. While searching for the lost, he is able to get a true appreciation for the city and the importance of the towers. Unfortunately, he turned out to be right...they found no bodies.
The next day the day crew received orders from Station 10 to conduct a search at Ground Zero along with other teams. Again, no bodies.
The next day they were called back to a different area of Ground Zero...no bodies. A day later they were headed back to Ground Zero but were told to head right back to Station 10. During the long waits, he wondered about the fallen fire fighters' families. "I wonder what their morning was like on 9/11? I wonder if they were able to say goodbye or tell their family they loved them?"
The waiting went on for 10 days. Richard became frustrated.
First, the New York fire fighters didn't know he and other task force members were fellow fire fighters. To solve that issue, Washington and others began wearing IFD logos on their helmets. "I know you're doing everything you can to get your own out, but we're not just civilians. We're firefighters and we know what you're going through," he wanted them to know.
Secondly, New York lost a lot of its command staff in the attacks and the organization was still a bit rocky.
Thirdly, "We're not finding anyone and New York is doing most of the work...I'm not doing any good here. I'd rather be back in Indiana where I know I can make a difference."
Washington got his wish.
He didn't see himself as a hero, but once the bus reached Anderson, Ind., he realized how proud Hoosiers were of their task force. It was evident by people applauding as the bus drove by and the abundance of American flags being flown.
The task force was driven straight to Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis where proud Hoosiers, family and friends waited to welcome and offer thanks.
Although the trip didn't go as expected, Washington was proud to represent Indiana.
His thoughts were with the firefighters in New York, but now he could focus on more personal things: finding his family amongst the crowd and getting married in a few short days.
It was good to be home.