9/11 firefighter volunteers to do his part in Iraq
by Pfc. Paul J. Harris
3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team,
4th Infantry Division Public Affairs Office
AYABACHI, Iraq (August 20, 2006) -- In the early morning of Nov. 12, 2001, residents of the sleepy neighborhood of Rockaway, N.Y., awoke to a thunderous sound. American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in the area and filled the beachside community with thick black smoke. For a firefighter this scene was all too familiar.
Sgt. Sean Cummins, civil affairs team sergeant, 404th Civil Affairs Battalion from Fort Dix, N.J., attached to 1-8 Combined Arms Battalion, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Task Force Band of Brothers, and an 11-year veteran of the New York Fire
Department, lived near the crash site in Queens, N.Y. He was home on his first day off since the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. Cummins raced to the scene and began pulling hoses off the fire trucks already there to help tame the raging fire. Though many were saved, 250 people died that Veterans Day.
?If September 11 was an earthquake here in this neighborhood, this is an aftershock,? said the area?s congressman, Rep. Anthony Weiner to a CNN reporter following the plane crash.
Two months before, on Sept. 10, Cummins switched days off with two firefighters from Rescue Company 1 so he could drive his mother to the airport and finish his scuba certification class to become a rescue diver on Sept. 11.
Both firefighters, including 10 others from Rescue 1, were killed when the World Trade Center towers collapsed.
?It was actually easier to go dig for guys than to go back to the firehouse and face the wives,? Cummins said.
It was emotionally tough for Cummins to face the two wives of the firefighters he switched shifts with.
?One of them came up to me at a memorial service,? Cummins said. ?She went and gave me a big hug and she said ?listen, he would have been there anyway.??
Between the two deceased firefighters they had nine children as opposed to Cummins? three. He often struggles with the fact that it could have been three children without a father instead of nine.
?9/11 was one of those things that happened; it wasn?t one of those things you just did, it wasn?t like you prepared for it,? Cummins said. ?There were 87 guys who I knew who died that day. What do you do? Do you roll over and die? Or do you get up and keep moving on??
Cummins and his family did move on and from all of the support he received from the community and his country he felt like it was time to give something back.
?In all honesty I look at this as penance, that is why I volunteered for a year tour (in Iraq),? Cummins said.
His mission has changed somewhat in Iraq. Instead of putting out fires, he and his two civil affairs teammates are trying to help the Iraqis rebuild their country.
Cummins deployed with Capt. Anthony Coppola, team leader, and Sgt. Jeffrey Scotti, civil affairs sergeant, both from the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion, two men he had never met before he received orders to deploy. It turns out; they did not live far from each other in New York and became close friends after driving 12 hours each way to Fort Bragg, N.C., for deployment training.
?You know he?s always got your back,? Scotti said. ?You know he is motivated to be here. He does his job and does not ask for much.?
Helping people is helping people, Cummins said, while taking a break from assessing a water treatment facility in the Tigris riverside village of Ayabachi. The easiest part of working in Iraq, he said, is dealing with the people; the hardest part is dealing with politics and paperwork.
Cummins? job is to assess villages in 1-8 CAB?s area of operation on four key areas: water, sewage, electricity and transportation.
Water is a main concern in most towns because the water comes directly from the river untreated. Cummins will order chlorine to be delivered to the town so Iraqis can learn how to treat the water themselves.
Cummins equates this job to fighting an uphill battle. With civil affairs you will not see the end result for 10 to 20 years, he said, compared to the instant gratification he receives as a firefighter.
Gratification he received Sept. 8, 2005, nearly four years to the day of Sept. 11. Again Cummins was called into action when fires inside a six story apartment building threatened its residents. 85 year old Maria Estrada was trapped on the 5th floor and could not get out. Thick smoke was burrowing its way through the halls blocking her escape. Cummins went up the fire escape and crawled through a window to reach Estrada and found her barely conscious. She was unable to move so Cummins picked her up and carried her out the building and down the fire escape to safety.
Despite the smoke and intense heat, Cummins returned to the building and searched the hallway and assisted the other residents in their evacuation.
As a result of his actions, Cummins was presented the Captain Denis W. Lane Memorial Medal for bravery, in a ceremony he was unable to attend because he was in Iraq.
?Sgt. Cummins is a walking volume of novels, good novels,? Coppola said. ?The constant stories, the lighthearted humor to break the tension sometimes, you come to expect it (from him). If someone were to come up to me and say he saved a thousand people in his life it wouldn?t surprise me. The life that he has lived and the work he has done at 43, I admire it.?