‘Never Forget’: Mainers make aid to 9/11 responders their mission

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FALMOUTH — Kevin Hogan remembers right where he was on Sept. 11, 2001.

He was in New York City, working as a firefighter in the Bronx. It was his final day of scheduled vacation, although he ended up volunteering at the scene of the most devastating terrorist attack on U.S. soil: the day the twin towers fell at the World Trade Center.

Hogan, now a Falmouth resident, said not being scheduled to work that day probably saved his life.

“It did,” added his wife, Katie.

“There was a good chance I would have got killed,” Hogan added, since his unit was called to the scene and, in all likelihood, he would have been with them.

The Hogans are now using their experiences to help the families of first responders and firefighters in New York who have suffered from medical conditions caused by the act of terror.

Hogan said he wasn’t sure what to believe when he heard the first tower was hit by a plane. Initially, he thought it must have been a smaller plane that flew into the tower by accident. He was watching the news when the second plane hit the second tower. Then he went to work.

“(We were) driving, and saw the tower go down,” Hogan said in an interview eight days before Sunday’s 15th anniversary of 9/11. He was brought from his fire station that fateful Tuesday in a city bus, many of which were used to bring firefighters to the scene.

Hogan described what he saw in two different ways: It was like a movie set. But it was also like a war zone, with a blizzard of dust, particles, papers, smoke and toxins in the air.

Hogan’s Ladder 3 lost 12 firefighters on 9/11 and was the hardest-hit single unit in the city; he knew six of the firefighters personally. He said he was sent to Ground Zero to look for whatever or whoever he could find.  Later, he also went to funerals in his capacity as a firefighter.

“It was a lot on my shoulders, but I was ready to help,” he said.

“Each firehouse is so deep rooted with its members and families,” Katie said, adding that losing a dozen men during a single event was like losing that many family members at once. “They didn’t have a chance to grieve,” she said of the survivors.

New York City lost nearly 350 firefighters on 9/11, and nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks. But it wasn’t just that day, or the weeks or months following that proved to be a problem for those at the site. Fifteen years later, people are still suffering, and still dying.

‘Every day is a gift’

Kevin Hogan, who retired as a lieutenant in the FDNY, still coughs. He takes medication. He suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.

“I’m not a martyr,” he said. “Every day is a gift.”

Fifteen years later, many other first responders are also still experiencing the physical and emotional effects of the day terrorists used jetliners to attack New York and the Pentagon.

Katie Hogan said the lingering effects are like watching the other half of the family go downhill.

“The guys were selfless,” she said. “They were doing their job.”

To aid those who served the New York City Fire Department on 9/11 and their families, and to continue to educate the public about the effects, the Hogans founded a local organization five years ago.

The Never Forget Project was conceived to honor the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Proceeds from the sale of sweatshirts were donated to the FDNY. But Katie said they weren’t able to get the project ready in time.

So when the 15th anniversary approached, they planned something even bigger.

The Hogans have partnered with a handful of partners to recreate the Never Forget Project. They sell T-shirts and hats, and accept donations, to show support for the families of FDNY responders. The mission of the project is to “educate, collaborate and commemorate the FDNY members who served in the rescue and recovery efforts,” according to its website.

Hogan estimated about 600 shirts have been sold to date. Fire departments from Baltimore to Boston and New York to Portland have all been very receptive, he said.

Charity West, who has been handling public relations for the project, said as the project gains more traction, the sphere of those reached will grow, too.

Proceeds from sales and donations will be given to three charities: Maine-based Camp Kieve, where, since 2002, a 9/11 Family Camp has served families and friends of New York City firefighters, former World Trade Center workers and Pentagon staff; Tuesday’s Children, an organization that supports youth, family and communities impacted by terrorism and traumatic loss, and Friends of Firefighters, an organization that provides services to New York City firefighters and their families.

“We wanted to focus on organizations actively helping people,” Katie said.

Kyle Poissonnier, whose company Catalyst for Change Wear helped create the T-shirts, said he was “unaware and uninformed” about what firefighters and their families are still dealing with after 15 years.

“I personally lost five guys I know in just the last year,” he said. “I’m just one guy.”

“We wanted to make education a big part of this,” Poissonnier said, adding that many people are likely unaware of the lingering effects.

They are effects Kevin sees all the time: he knows three people who are battling cancer as a result of the fallout they inhaled on 9/11. He said it was important to educate people that “guys are still dying, guys are still getting sick.”

“The numbers are still growing,” he said. “It’s staggering.”

Katie Hogan said the research they’ve read suggests it’s around the 15-year mark that many health problems first surface.

The group hopes the project’s website will help with the education process.

In addition to the website, West said the Never Forget Project is continuing to “push the word out,” and after the 15th anniversary, the  organizers will “see how we can evolve.”

Katie Hogan said another reason education is so important is because there’s now a generation gap: She has met firefighters who don’t have a connection to 9/11, since they were too young to fully understand the ramifications when it happened.

She also said in the months following 9/11, many people went to New York to show their support, but, as the years went by, the outreach dwindled.

“You don’t just stop helping,” Katie Hogan said. “Those getting sick, it never ended for them. There has to be acknowledgement and support.”

15 years later

Most students entering their first year of high school today were not born when the towers fell. To them, 9/11 is a moment in a history book, not a tangible experience. Not like it was for the Hogans.

Katie Hogan is a Maine native who was working in Roanoke, Virginia, when the towers fell.

After watching the towers go down on a television in a teachers lounge, she drove to Washington to see a friend who worked at the Pentagon. The man she was dating at the time was at the World Trade Center, and she didn’t know if he was still alive for four days before she heard from him.

Her plan had been to move to New York the following weekend, but “my life path changed and I met Kevin,” Katie said on bright morning two days before Labor Day.

She and Kevin met at a 9/11 fundraising event in Maine at the end of 2001. They moved to Maine full time in 2011, three years after Kevin, like many others, was forced to retire due to 9/11-related illness.

“They became my family,” Katie said of the FDNY. “I just wanted to be down there.”

Katie said she misses New York every day. Kevin, however, feels just the opposite. New York will always be home, he said, but it’s not for him anymore.

“Maine saved my sanity,” he said, because there were too many memories in New York.

The Hogans emphasize theirs is not a singular story.

“There’s so many people in our shoes,” Katie said. Anyone old enough to recall that day, Katie said, can recall where they were and what they were doing at the time. And while people may want to move on, she said this is the point of their fundraising project: to never forget.

“So many guys are sick,” she said. “So many guys are dying.” She said it’s important for people to understand people are still struggling.

But 9/11 will never go away for the Hogans.

Katie described what she calls “9/11 days” – days when the sky or weather is strangely reminiscent of that day, 15 years ago. It’s an emotional subject for her.

And for Kevin, every day is a reminder. For him, Sept. 11, 2001, doesn’t go away. Every day sounds bring him back to that moment when the towers came down and he went in.

“There isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not reminded of 9/11,” he said, sitting on his back stairs, more than 300 miles away from where the towers fell. “Even if I try not to think of it, 9/11 comes up.”

But Hogan said that’s the strength of the Never Forget Project.

“Our legitimacy is our connection,” he said. “I was there.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

The Never Forget Project, which supports New York City firefighters affected by the events of 9/11, was spearheaded by retired FDNY Lt. Kevin Hogan, far right, and his wife Katie, third from the left. With the couple, from left, are L.K. Weiss, Kyle Poissonnier, Charity West and Glen Halliday.

Hats and T-shirts are being sold through The Never Forget Project to raise funds for New York City firefighters affected by the 9/11 attacks.

Ceremonies to mark 9/11 anniversary

These events are scheduled Sunday, Sept. 11, to commemorate the 15th anniversary of 9/11:

• Brunswick: American Legion Post 20 will host a Blue Star banner ceremony at the Brunswick Mall gazebo at 1:30 p.m. The post will also honor members of the Brunswick police and fire departments.

• Falmouth: American Legion Post 164 will hold a ceremony at 1 p.m. at 65 Depot Road. Folding chairs are recommended; light refreshments will follow the ceremony.

• Freeport: The town is hosting its annual memorial service at the Fire Department, 4 Main St., at a time to be determined. Visit freeportmaine.com for more information.

Also, the Freeport Flag Ladies are asking people to stand with them on Main Street from 1-2 p.m. at the intersection of Main and School streets. People are also encouraged to stand anywhere on Main Street, and should bring flags and wear patriotic clothing.

• Portland: The  Police and Fire departments will host a Memorial Remembrance and wreath-laying ceremony at 8:30 a.m. at Fort Allen Park, followed by a moment of silence at 8:45 a.m.

Also, a Blue Mass to honor the public safety community will begin at 10 a.m. at The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, 307 Congress St. Representatives from federal, state, county and local agencies and departments will participate, along with U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling, State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas, and Public Safety Commissioner John Morris. All members of Maine’s law enforcement, fire, EMS and public safety communities and their families have also been invited.

Scarborough: Memorial ceremony from 9:30-10:30 a.m. with honor guard, bagpipes, reading of names of deceased fire and police officers and moment of silence at Dunstan Station, 639 U.S. Route 1.

Edited Sept. 9, 2016, to include Scarborough event.

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.