For the third year in a row, Stamford firefighter Paula Schoonmaker made the 75-foot climb to the top of the department’s ladder truck, parked outside the station as part of the community’s annual 9/11 commemoration display.
Schoonmaker, clad in full bunker gear, has made the climb 11 times on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks each year since 2018.
She pauses at the ladder’s peak, where an American flag rustles in the wind, looking out over the valley below.
“The firefighters and the paramedics and the police officers that were running toward the buildings and died doing their duty to their country and their communities and their loved ones — you’re making each step for them that they couldn’t,” Schoonmaker said. “It’s just something you have to keep pushing through. You do what you can to fill in their steps.”
Schoonmaker, who was just 4 years old at the time of the attacks, joined the fire department at age 19 and was elected second lieutenant by 23.
“When I joined the fire department I learned so much,” she said. “I’ve cried so much in the past four years that I’ve been here, reading through all the newspapers. It’s devastating — the number of people that couldn’t go home to their families and just couldn’t go through their front door ever again.”
The newspapers, magazines and clippings are part of a permanent collection housed at the department and curated by member Becky Smith, also an emergency medical technician, and past department member Sue Martin.
“We just started collecting,” Smith said. “When we first started doing this, it was just newspapers. I didn’t have anything else. I kept asking and we kept getting.”
Martin acquired a hose from Har-Rob Fire Apparatus in Syracuse and started the tradition of inscribing the names of fallen firefighters according to the year of their death, a physical timeline of the tragedy that claims more lives with each passing year.
Smith, who took over updating the list of names in 2018, said she writes more and more every year. Dozens were added in 2019, and 11 so far in 2020.
“I don’t want to have to add names anymore,” she said. “I want it to stop.”
Jack Moran, a Stamford resident and 9/11 veteran was diagnosed with a cancer linked to the collapse of the Twin Towers but has remained involved with the Stamford Fire Department, according to Smith.
She said Moran inspired her son, Dakota, who was just starting kindergarten on the day of the attacks, to become a firefighter.
“He grew up with this,” Smith said.
Smith, who was a dispatcher for Cooperstown Medical Transport and working the overnight shift on Sept. 10, 2001, said she had just gotten home and put her son on the bus when her father called her in to watch live footage of the attacks on TV.
“I will never, ever forget that day,” she said.
Specially honored in the collection is Pete Ganci, who was chief of the New York City Fire Department at the time of the attacks and the brother of former Stamford resident Ellen Ganci, who loaned a piece of steel salvaged from the towers and gifted to her by the fire department in honor of her brother.
On Tuesday, FDNY officials announced that the James Gordon Bennett Medal, one of the highest honors awarded to New York City firefighters for more than 150 years, would be renamed in honor of Ganci, who was the highest-ranking uniformed member of the department to be killed in the 9/11 attacks.
Smith’s collection also includes FDNY badges donated by a retired firefighter, photos honoring more than a dozen search-and-rescue dogs that died of cancer and statuettes and trinkets she has collected over the years from her work at the local thrift store.
“All of a sudden 9/11 happened and nobody wanted anything to do with it anymore, so they just started bringing things in,” she said.
Prominently featured in Smith’s display is an album of photos donated by a coworker of her sister’s at Bassett Hospital and a collection by former Port Authority and New York State Police officers Ken and Kelly Haas, who offered the photos during a visit to the display in 2016.
Smith also rings the 5-5-5 alarm on the fire bell for all fallen firefighters throughout the day at the exact time of each plane crash and building collapse. The evening is concluded with a memorial service in honor of fallen first responders and civilians alike.
Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at email@example.com or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.