This September marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The attacks, which sent shockwaves throughout the world, took the lives of so many, including a number of the firefighters who engaged in the rescue operations. At the World Trade Center in New York, 343 local firefighters perished as a result of the attacks.
Did you know that 11 Japanese firefighters went to New York City after the attacks to help with the rescue operations there? At the time, Ground Zero was designated as a special security zone and off-limits to foreign nationals. Why did the Japanese firefighters travel there despite these restrictions and even though they were only able to stay for only three nights? What did they accomplish there? American View interviewed Hama Koichi, a former employee of the Tokyo Fire Department who led the group as the oldest of the 11 members, to learn about his experiences.
American View: Why did you decide to go to Ground Zero?
Hama Koichi: Because of an email we received from a fellow firefighter in New York. I’ve participated in the World Police and Fire Games (WPFG), an athletic event for police officers and firefighters, several times with other Japanese firefighters from across the nation. We also took part in the WPFG held in Indianapolis about three months before the terrorist attacks. We hit it off with some firefighters from New York there and became friends with them. As soon as we saw the news in Japan about the terrorist attacks, we tried to contact the American firefighters we knew to confirm their safety. However, we were unable to reach them by phone, and they didn’t respond to our emails.
Then, about 10 days after the attacks, we received an email from David Rodriguez of the New York City Fire Department. He said he was safe but needed help at Ground Zero. Several of my friends in the Yokohama City Fire Bureau insisted on going to New York to help him. They kept asking me to go with them, but it was difficult for me to travel overseas at the time.
I was painfully aware of how badly the Yokohama firefighters wanted to help. Of course, I was worried about the safety of my fellow American firefighters too. When flights to New York and the surrounding area started to return to normal in late September, their plan to travel to New York became more realistic. I eventually came to the conclusion that I should take part in order to help them stay calm and produce results as a team since I was the oldest member of the group.
American View: What kind of plan did you have in mind before leaving Japan?
Hama: We took the trip not as part of our jobs but as volunteers. Each of us took time off work and traveled to New York at our own expense. It was difficult for us to take much annual leave due to the nature of our occupation. In addition, Japanese fire stations were taking special precautions against terrorist threats in the country at the time. But even under such circumstances, we 11 firefighters decided to go to New York. Many of us had taken part in the WPFG, so we knew each other well.
Our plan was to depart for New York from Narita Airport on Oct. 7, 2001, and our return flight from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York was on Oct. 10. That allowed us to spend three nights there but only gave us around two days to work at the site. On the trip over, we thought about what we might be able do during such a short time. Of course, we wanted to engage in the actual rescue efforts, but we also knew it would be difficult for us to do so because we hadn’t been able to make any arrangements beforehand with our American counterparts. We decided it would be enough if we could just deliver the donations we’d collected from other Japanese firefighters and pay our respects to the victims. That’s why we decided to go to New York even though we were only able to stay there for three nights.
American View: Were you able to start rescue operations soon after arriving in New York?
Hama: We were told upon arriving in New York that we probably wouldn’t be able to get the ID cards we’d applied for through one of our friends at the New York City Fire Department.
While exploring various possibilities for joining the rescue operations, we visited Engine 16 Ladder 7 in Midtown the next day to offer flowers and silent prayers to the fallen firefighters. We also handed the donations to the deputy chief of the fire station. After that, we were finally able to see David of the New York City Fire Department, who had emailed us the month before.
At Engine 16, we got into a conversation with a firefighter who had heard about us. His name was Mickey Kross, and he was something of a local hero because he was miraculously rescued from the World Trade Center when the building collapsed on him after he’d been engaged in rescue operations for four hours. He said he could take us to Ground Zero. We couldn't have asked for a better opportunity.
The devastation at Ground Zero was worse than anything we could have imagined. Some of the Japanese firefighters just stood there in shock. There was a memorial set up in a tent nearby, so we paid our respects in front of the photos and belongings of the deceased firefighters displayed there. At this point, we still hadn’t been able to pin down any arrangements to help with the rescue operations.
American View: Were you able to make arrangements to help with the rescue operations on your final day there?
Hama: In the morning, we participated in a funeral for Ladder 3 members, including some firefighters we knew. Then we drove over to the area surrounding Ground Zero in a car equipped with firefighting gear, looking for ways to help. It was a miracle that we were able to enter Ground Zero. David enthusiastically explained our situation to the chaplain who works with Engine 16, and the chaplain persuaded the person in charge of the work shift to allow us to join the rescue efforts. We were finally permitted to engage in rescue operations from 5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
In retrospect, I think the fact that we brought our own fireproof suits and helmets with us helped to convey our determination to join the rescue operations. The person in charge of the shift told us we could join the operations. Even though taking photos wasn’t technically allowed, we got special permission to do so.
At Ground Zero, we were asked to find whatever we could, even fragments of belongings. There was a subway station beneath the World Trade Center and parts of the collapsed building were still burning, so the steel beams were hot to the touch. We had to remove the debris by hand while cooling the steel with water. Using heavy machinery would have run the risk of breaking through the hollow spaces created by the twisted steel beams. We carefully searched for the bodies of firefighters as well as ordinary people.
Right before we ran out of time, we found an oxygen tank that appeared to have been used by a local firefighter. We failed to find the body of the firefighter, but the tank indicated that he’d been there. We were working under tremendous stress, but as the leader I also needed to pay attention to the safety of other Japanese firefighters. The time passed so quickly.
American View: How did you feel after the work? Did it lead to any new discoveries?
Hama: We sensed the strong ties between the American firefighters and their resolve never to abandon their colleagues. That was what made us so intent on helping them. We were eventually permitted to join the rescue operations at the discretion of the person in charge of Engine 16’s operations. Maybe we were able to get into Ground Zero because our desire to do whatever we could to help our American counterparts was evident despite the language barrier.
The people of New York were very kind to us. There was a restaurant in a building near Ground Zero that offered free meals to firefighters and volunteers working on the rescue operations. Also, a short distance away from Ground Zero, an American manufacturer was providing dust masks and other equipment free of charge. That made me realize that the spirit of service is built into the American society.
Although the 11 of us engaged in actual rescue operations in New York, Japan did not dispatch an international emergency rescue team. There were people who wanted to go to New York to help but couldn’t. I feel regret that some media outlets reported on us as if we represented Japan’s firefighters. We were volunteers, and we don’t want to be treated as heroes.
American View: How did your experiences affect your activities later on? What are your thoughts on the 20th anniversary?
Hama: People who share the same profession are able to work together in ways that transcend country, race, and language. Firefighters tend to feel a connection with each other as soon as they find out they share the same occupation. I think the young Japanese firefighters on the trip learned the beauty of this.
I’ve visited the New York Fire Department with young firefighters several times since our rescue operations in the city and deepened our exchanges both personally and professionally. In the year following 9/11, the Tokyo Fire Department’s Akasaka Fire Station conducted a fire drill at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo at the request of the Embassy, and I led it.
It’s unfortunate that terrorism still exists even 20 years after 9/11. I’ve already retired from the Tokyo Fire Department, but I’m ready to go to the United States to help whenever I’m needed. I believe the Japanese firefighters who went to Ground Zero are all of the same mind.
Below is a list of the 11 firefighters who joined the trip and their affiliations in October 2001.
Hama Koichi, Tokyo Fire Department
Muto Katsuyuki, Sakai City Fire Bureau
Shizawa Koichi, Yokohama City Fire Bureau
Oe Michinari, Yokohama City Fire Bureau
Saito Yoshifumi, Yokohama City Fire Bureau
Makino Satoru, Yokohama City Fire Bureau
Kodama Atsushi, Kawasaki City Fire Department
Yamamoto Daisuke, Kawaguchi City Fire Department
Santo Masakatsu, Osaka Municipal Fire Department
Kohama Naoyuki, Osaka Municipal Fire Department
Mizuno Haruo, Nagoya City Fire Bureau
Banner image: Japanese firefighters deliver donations to Engine 16 Ladder 7.