KUNSAN AIR BASE, Republic of Korea --
The morning of September 11, 2001, was beautiful and clear, a picture-perfect day, not a cloud in sight. New Yorkers made their way to work, filling the sidewalks of Manhattan, horns honking, birds chirping. For Americans across the country, it was a Tuesday like any other.
Little did anyone know, Sept. 11, 2001, would become one of the most remembered days in American history. The devastating terrorist attacks that morning in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, would shake America to its core, leaving thousands of families to mourn for their mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters for years to come.
For Airman 1st Class William Lemon, September 11, 2001, would be forever engrained in his mind as one of the hardest days in his 18-year career as a volunteer firefighter.
“It seems like yesterday,” said Lemon. “It’s easily the saddest, most difficult call I have ever had to respond to. It’s taught me to treasure life and live every moment as if it’s my last.”
William Lemon: The First Responder
Lemon was born and raised in Long Island, New York. Adopted as an infant, Lemon joined a growing family with five new siblings, three girls and two boys. His relationship with his family has always been solid, giving him the support and confidence to grow into a volunteer firefighter, and later, an American Airman.
A year after graduating high school, Lemon joined his neighborhood volunteer fire department in October 1999, where he dedicated his time away from his full-time job. Although he joined out of sheer curiosity, his reason for fighting fire evolved as he reported to his first structure fire; a two-story residence being engulfed in flames.
“You name a spot on the second floor, flames were there,” said Lemon. “As I started pulling hose, preparing to fight the growing flames, I knew firefighting was in my blood. It was something I really wanted and needed to do.”
It was the first time Lemon was ever thanked for his service. The fire department slowly became Lemon’s home away from home, as he grew closer to the men and women of the Brentwood Volunteer Fire Department.
“The fire service is a brotherhood,” said Lemon. “When I go into a fire, the person next to me and the person behind me will always do whatever it takes to ensure we all make it out and go home at the end of the day.”
September 11, 2001
The time was 8:46 a.m. and American Airlines Flight 11, traveling from Boston to Los Angeles, had just struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Lemon was fast asleep after working a long night shift as a security guard. His dad ran down the stairs and began shaking Lemon awake. Disoriented and confused, Lemon stared at his father, not quite comprehending the unbelievable information he was hearing. Then his pager began to sound.
“My pager goes off, tones sound over the radio and finally the dispatcher’s voice,” said Lemon. “First, signal one, second was signal 24 and then the code every firefighter never hopes to hear, signal 27.”
Signal one was a code for a disaster emergency, signal 24 indicated assistance was needed within city limits and signal 27 indicated an aircraft emergency landing or crash. All Brentwood Fire Department companies were instructed to respond. By the time the dispatcher began repeating the emergency codes, Lemon was heading out the door with his pager and radio in hand.
“A four minute response time to the firehouse took me 90 seconds,” recalled Lemon. “None of us knew what was really happening. We all grabbed our turnout gear, hopped on the truck and headed for the parkway. On our way into the city was when the second tower was hit.”
The time was 9:03 a.m. and United Airlines Flight 175, traveling from Boston to Los Angeles, had just struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center.
“Dispatch comes over the air with so much panic and urgency in his voice, calling for all Brentwood units to respond, stating the other tower had just been hit by a second passenger aircraft,” said Lemon. “At this point, we knew it wasn’t an accident. How could it be? We knew it was a terrorist attack and everything changed in that moment.”
Nearly 230 miles away, in Washington D.C., American Airlines Flight 77, traveling from Dulles, Virginia, to Los Angeles, struck the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. All 184 people lost their lives in the crash, including 125 Pentagon employees and 59 passengers on Flight 77.
As Lemon and his company cautiously made their way into the city, weaving in and out of the panicked New Yorkers fleeing the island, they received the first notification; the South Tower had just collapsed. It took only 10 seconds for the entirety of the 110-floor building to come down.
“I don’t think we were prepared for the magnitude of damage that waited for us. All I could think about was the New York City first responders on-scene and the fact they were going in to help people who were trapped without giving it a second thought,” said Lemon.
At 10:03 a.m, outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, passengers of United Airlines Flight 93, traveling from Newark, New Jersey, to San Francisco, fought off four hijackers and tried to reclaim control before crashing the aircraft. All 40 passengers lost their lives.
As Lemon and his company continued to make their way across the bridge into Manhattan, the driver slammed on his brakes, causing confusion amongst the crew.
“We were ready to get in there and help in any way we could, there was no time to waste. I asked the driver, why we were stopping and his face was pale and stunned,” recalled Lemon. “There in the distance the North Tower began to collapse. The antenna tower started to tilt, then the building righted itself, flames grew and then nothing but a huge cloud of dust. The towers were gone.”
Lemon’s company finally made it into the city, parking within 100 yards of what became known as “Ground Zero.” Hundreds of first responders filled the hazy area, helping citizens, covered in dust and debris, to safety. He compared Ground Zero to a warzone, a devastating image of tragedy. Aircraft and building parts littered the area, reaching two to three miles out from the impact site.
Later, after meeting the on-scene commander, Lemon’s company would learn of their assignment. Prior to the North Tower collapsing, Lemon’s company was assigned to work forcible entry and search and rescue within the tower.
“I could’ve been one of those names people remember on the anniversary,” said Lemon. “Being here, it makes me grateful, but extremely sad. It’s the toughest part of surviving, knowing I’m here when so many of my brothers and sisters aren’t.”
On that Tuesday, 343 New York Fire Department firefighters, 23 New York Police Department officers and 37 members of Port Authority lost their lives.
Lemon and his company were staged at a nearby firehouse for 18 hours following the attacks on September 11, 2001. They responded to more than 200 calls while on standby, helping with the aftermath of the most devastating attack on American soil since the attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
William Lemon: The American Airman
Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, America mourned and the rest of the world looked on in solemn support. New Yorkers returned to lower Manhattan, airline ticket sales maintained a record low and Lemon found a new sense of duty and purpose.
“To honor those we lost, we had to continue to do our jobs and continue to serve and protect our community,” said Lemon. “I knew plenty of people who passed away both in and out of the line of duty. It continues to have such a big impact on me because these first responders were my family. I’m grateful for their service and dedication and know they’re watching over me.”
Lemon continued to work full time, balancing his regular paying jobs while dedicating majority of his off time to the fire service.
In December 2017, Lemon chose to take his service a step further and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. Today, Lemon is an F-16 Fighting Falcon crew chief with the 8th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea. He’s responsible for the maintaining, servicing and inspecting F-16s and ensuring they are prepared to fly in support of missions in and around the Pacific.
Lemon often reflects on his 18 years as a volunteer firefighter and looks forward to one day returning to the fire service to serve alongside his brothers and sisters of the Brentwood Volunteer Fire Department. For now, Lemon will enjoy his time abroad, heading for Osan Air Base this month and then Japan next year.
September 11, 2001, will always remain as one of the most tragic days in America’s history and will continue to define many of the men and women who responded to the scene that Tuesday.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t think of the men and women of the NYFD and NYPD who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives for complete strangers,” said Lemon. “I’m surrounded by people who would lay down their lives for others if the call came. But these first responders answered their final alarm on the most chaotic and stressful day without ever looking back, they will always be my heroes.”