Russ Spahn has performed the national anthem at countless ceremonies and celebrations over the years. The recently retired chief has sung the Star Spangled Banner at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers, and hopes to someday do the same at the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field.
But perhaps no rendition of this country’s anthem will resonate louder than Spahn’s performances of the song on Sept. 11, 2002. A patriotic American, Spahn was unable to enlist for the Vietnam War because a health condition kept him out of the military. He was Greenfield’s assistant fire chief in 2001. The terrorist attacks that September changed the way people perceived his profession and made him question the way he thought about fire training.
Spahn was asked to sing the national anthem at three separate ceremonies on the one-year anniversary of the attacks. He sang for a packed Hart Park crowd in Wauwatosa, at his own city’s Fire Station 2 and then in front of hundreds at Nicolet High School’s gymnasium for the North Shore Fire Department.
“One year later, we knew all the names of all the people that died,” Spahn said. “It really hit hard and each ceremony I went to was very emotional.”
Remembering it like it was yesterday
On Sept. 11, 2001, Spahn and the Greenfield fire fighters were meeting in the conference room at Station 2 when an off-duty firefighter called and told them to turn on the television.
Like millions of Americans like them, they could not believe what they were seeing.
“It looked like a movie,” Spahn said. “I was struggling with the fact that a plane crashed into a huge building like that. … As we were watching, the news reporter said there’s another plane coming in, and they filmed it hitting the second building. The light bulb went on for me and for everybody, this has got to be a terrorist attack.”
Spahn and the rest of the firefighters sat silently in disbelief. It took minutes before it dawned on them this was really happening. And then the firefighting minds took over. With years of training and preparing for fires and disasters, Spahn and his mates put themselves in the New York firefighters shoes.
“We knew in New York and any of the high-rise places, command is often set up right inside a lower floor of that building, which we found out in this case was fatal,” Spahn said. “No one really believed those buildings would collapse. The chiefs did what they would normally do for a structural fire of that nature. As we saw the buildings fall one by one, we knew people vanished just that quickly, including the fire crews who were performing rescues, the command that was down there. We knew instantly hundreds of people must have died.”
Spahn spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the situation from a firefighting and rescue standpoint, struggling with the idea that chief officers must have known their crews were committing themselves to a futile mission.
“But they were going to do everything they could to save as many lives as they could,” he said. “Their life-risk they took was higher than at any time during their careers because it wasn’t an ordinary structural fire.”
Attacks lead to changes
The events of 9/11 changed the way the world viewed the firefighting profession, at least temporarily, and changed the way Spahn approached his career as a chief officer.
Like law enforcement officers and military members, firefighters have long been respected by the general public. But following 9/11, they were revered like never before.
“Within a couple of days, people, strangers, would be coming up to us, all of us, no matter where we were, and hug us and thank us,” Spahn said. “It was a good feeling, but it met me with different emotions. I didn’t do anything; I wasn’t there. I didn’t feel that devastation. I didn’t lose a loved one. I didn’t feel anything close to what the people in New York must have been feeling. It was a different level (of respect) we’ve ever experienced before.”
In the days, months and years following the attacks, Spahn took a more critical look at his profession, specifically, the Greenfield Fire Department. It was easy for Spahn and hundreds, maybe thousands of chief officers just like him across the country, to play Monday morning quarterback, but it doing so, he believes he made his own department safer.
“I’m not a high-rise expert like a lot of those chiefs were, but I’m wondering if they even knew that an airplane hit or understood. They put themselves and hundreds of others in such great jeopardy,” Spahn said. “As an assistant chief, I wanted our people to think on their feet and not just do the same routine over and over again. You get good at what you do, doing it that way, but if something deviates from that, you can jeopardize a lot of people. People in those buildings, from my understanding, they had a routine set up.”
A day to never forget
Though just a kid, Russ Spahn remembers where he was when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and when the first man walked on the moon. And although much has changed over the last decade, he remembers Sept. 11, 2001, as clear as day. And he always will.
“Right now, our country is dealing with the economic situation and the political situation, I’ve never seen anything like this. I don’t know where we’re going,” Spahn said. “I think now more than ever, we need to hang on to our family traditions, our lifestyle, our old American way, and not forget those that came before us. This is one of those times I hope is never forgotten. A 10-year-old is now 20, and I’m hoping the younger people remember this and don’t let the memory of these people die.”