The events of Sept. 11, 2001, had a profound impact on first responders, whether they were at the scene of the terror attacks or thousands of miles away.
In all, more than 400 public safety personnel were killed in New York, including 343 firefighters. Others who perished were private emergency medical services personnel and Port Authority of New York, NYPD and court officers.
Ripples from the events of that morning were felt more than 900 miles away at police precincts and fire stations in Huntsville, just as they were in other parts of the country.
A fateful day
With a low temp of around 60 degrees, it was an unusually cool start to that fateful Tuesday morning. Like most Americans, Huntsville Police Capt. Mike Izzo and Huntsville Fire & Rescue Capt. Art Mitchell reported for work, unaware their lives and country would be forever changed within a matter of minutes.
Izzo is a native of Ridgewood, New York, located on the border of Brooklyn and Queens. Before relocating to Huntsville in 1992, he completed the NYPD Police Academy and worked as an NYPD officer for more than two years. As a teen, he helped his father lay carpet on the 44th floor of 1 World Trade Center.
In the mid-1990s, he took his children up to the indoor observation deck, which was more than 1,300 feet high. He didn’t know then it would be the last time.
On 9/11, Izzo was a second-shift patrol sergeant at the North Precinct and a Captain in the Alabama National Guard. That morning, he planned to conduct a change-of-command inventory at the armory on Johnson Road. He had his patrol car with him and planned to report to the North Precinct when the inventory was done.
“As I was leaving, my wife told me the first tower had gotten hit, and she thought we were under attack,” he remembered. “I told her to make sure we got our children out of school and to monitor what was going on.”
By the time Izzo arrived at the armory, soldiers were gathered around a television, watching the events unfold. He recalled them being sympathetic because his hometown was under attack.
“I called my mom from there,” he said, adding she and her neighbors were on their rooftops in New York watching the smoke from the Twin Towers.
When the first plane hit the north tower, it was 7:45 a.m. in Huntsville. Eighteen minutes later, a second plane struck the south tower.
Mitchell, who had been with HFR for three years, was just reporting for duty.
“I had just relieved my shift buddy, and my driver came to the door and said a plane had hit one of the towers,” he said. “We turned on the news and we saw the second plane hit. Immediately, our captain said, ‘Fellas, we’re under attack.’”
The New York attacks were followed by another coordinated attack on the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m. A fourth and final plane attack was thwarted by passengers, forcing hijackers to ground United Flight 93 into a Pennsylvania field at 10:03 a.m.
In New York, first responders rushed toward the Twin Towers. One of them was Raymond York, the husband of a childhood friend of Izzo’s. York lost his life when the Twin Towers collapsed.
Izzo will be in New York this weekend attending 20th anniversary events, including a fundraiser organized by York’s widow, Joan York.
“That was one of our people in our family and community who grew up with us,” Izzo said.
We turned on the news and we saw the second plane hit. Immediately, our captain said, ‘Fellas, we’re under attack.’”
When asked about the mood in the fire house after the attacks, Mitchell said it was one of “disbelief.” There was also fear that any city, especially one with a military base like Redstone Arsenal, could be a target.
“Everybody was on guard,” Mitchell said. “It was just surreal. Like one of your worst nightmares coming true.”
Izzo said HPD shared the same concerns about Huntsville being targeted. He was part of a security detail assigned to guard the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, but he really wanted to be back in New York.
“I called the deputy chief at that time, Mark Hudson, and said, ‘Hey sir, this is my home,’” Izzo said. “I wanted to jump in a patrol car and just drive. There were public safety workers that came from across the country. We reached out to NYPD and asked if they needed additional officers, but they were overwhelmed with help.”
Huntsville’s firefighters also wanted to help. Mitchell can remember them sitting around asking what they could do or if they should go help rescue victims.
“When other people are running out of a burning building, we’re running in,” he said of firefighters. “Our families all know when we say goodbye, it could be our last time. Those guys were coming to work just like I was and answered a call that eventually cost them their lives.”
Both Izzo and Mitchell have visited the site of the attacks. Izzo visited a year after the event, when a memorial service was held at the crater where the Twin Towers once stood. Mitchell visited the 9/11 Memorial & Museum in 2019.
“The same chill bumps I got (the day of the attacks) came over me,” Mitchell said.
Izzo said returning for this year’s events will again provide an opportunity to reflect on the events of the day and the sacrifices of not just the first responders, but also the service members who subsequently risked their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And though it remains a day of immense tragedy for the nearly 3,000 who died in the attacks, Izzo said it sparked a feeling of nationwide unity, if only for a brief time.
“Flag companies were running out of flags because we were so proud of America,” he said. “No matter what race, creed, religion or sex we were, we were proud to be Americans. … I hope our country remembers what it’s like to be Americans and be proud of our country and our flag and not have so much division.”