‘It Doesn't Seem Like 20 Years,' Denton Firefighter Recalls Sept. 11 Search & Rescue

Texas A&M Task Force 1 sent teams from across Texas to New York City to help with search and rescue efforts after Sept. 11, 2001

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Outside the main fire station in Denton, there's a piece of history from 1,500 miles away. A piece of metal from Ground Zero serves as a reminder of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — a turning point in our country.

Capt. Stanley Hempstead has served with the Denton Fire Department for 32 years and like many, he remembers exactly what he was doing the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

"The morning the first plane hit, I was actually at Station 3," Hempstead said.

He, along with the rest of the nation, watched in disbelief as our country was attacked.

"[I] came in to watch the TV and we got to see the second plane hit, and by the time the second plane hit, our pagers went off," he said. "That tells you how long ago it was, it was pagers then."

It doesn't seem like 20 years ago

Capt. Stanley Hempstead - Denton Fire Department

Hempstead was a member of Texas A&M Task Force 1, which serves under one of the 28 federal teams under the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He and two others from the Denton Fire Department joined dozens of first responders from across Texas to help in the aftermath.

"In the things that I've seen so far on TV, it brings back a lot of memories of the site itself," said Hempstead. "A lot of the smells."

Memories that are fresh 20 years later and still hard to fathom.

"It's hard to put it in words on what it was like because you have to imagine what it was like putting four football fields side-by-side, that's how big the pile, we call it the pile, was," he said.

For 10 days, they worked in dangerous conditions and sifted through the debris stacked several stories high that still had active fires underneath.

"There were times you would climb on the pile and where you stepped you would have to put your foot down first, and if your foot slid, that means it's melting the bottom of your sole, so you had to be very careful because if you fall, you're going to end up being branded," Hempstead said. "I went through four pairs of boots in that 10 days."

Their search and rescue efforts lasted from sunup to sundown.

"We were there just to help them, that was our whole purpose, to help the FDNY guys try to find some of their brother firefighters," he said.

Unfortunately, what they found was grim.

"We didn't find anybody alive, we found — being a firefighter — we found a lot of things that we didn't want to find," Hempstead said. "We found air packs that were pretty much burned up, we found three or four of them, so we knew…"

Three hundred and forty-three first responders made the ultimate sacrifice that day, along with thousands of others killed in the attacks.

"I hope as a society that we don't allow those over 3,000 people that died, that their deaths go in vain," he said. "In that for months afterward, we coalesced as a country, and the small stuff, we didn't' sweat it."

As people pause to reflect on what happened two decades ago at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, Hempstead hopes that even for a moment, everyone across the country can put aside their differences and come back together as one.

Of the three that went to Ground Zero from the Denton Fire Department, only Hempstead remains on the job — another retired as a battalion chief and the third has since passed away.

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