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Repairing the World Trade Center Flag; Firefighters Memorial Observance; Women of Ground Zero; How a Blind Man Escaped the World Trade Center

Aired September 11, 2011 - 13:00   ET


COOPER: Our Jim Spellman is with some people who survived the Joplin, Missouri, tornado last May, their turn to help with the World Trade Center flag. He joins us now -- Jim.

JIM SPELLMAN, CNN: Hey, Anderson. Yes. Take a look at this flag. It's really remarkable up close. As you mentioned, it hung at Ground Zero, where it was heavily damaged. The white spots were turned gray. It had rips and tears. All this year, Jeff Corneff (ph) and his group, New York Says Thank You, have been going around the country, repairing it spot by spot with these flags that have flown often other -- over -- under -- over other disaster sites and things like that.

Some of it's really remarkable. Take a look at this one. This portion of the flag flew over Pearl Harbor when it was bombed. This section right here -- this flew at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s funeral. That was the Georgia patch. You can see on the far side there, there's active duty military people. They are sewing a part of the flag that flew over the Pentagon on September 11.

And you know, this really -- the spirit here -- nobody here is talking about terrorists or war or anything. Everybody here is talking about the day after September 11, when we saw so much unity and so much bravery by first responders. And that's really the spirit, I think, that what they want to do is reclaim that from history and be able to have that be as much a part of the story as terrorists or war or anything along those lines, Anderson.

COOPER: Jim, I appreciate that.

And you know, one -- it's one of the things we were talking about before is, I do think on this day and in the years ahead, it's not the names of the terrorists that Americans remember, nor necessarily are they important. They have disappeared in history and will. It's the victims here whose names should be remembered, and the names, obviously, of the victims etched in bronze here.

There's been another memorial observance going on further uptown in New York. CNN special correspondent at the firemen's memorial in New York. It's about seven miles north of the World Trade Center site. We'll take you there next.

Soledad O'Brien joins us now. Soledad, what is the scene? Is the memorial still going on there? SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, it's interesting. The memorial itself has wrapped up, but what we have here are firefighters who have driven in, in many cases, on their motorcycles to be part of the celebration here. It's really remarkable. They did this real convoy of motorcycles right down Riverside Drive, where -- you're right, Anderson, about eight miles north of where you are at 100th Street and at Riverside Drive.

So after the memorial ended and many of the firefighters from the FDNY went off to church, folks from, you know, every state, literally every single state -- plus I've seen firefighters from Germany and firefighters from France and Canada and Australia -- are here and taking an opportunity to check out the Firefighters Memorial, which is really the centerpiece of the event that was here today. It is remarkable.

We wanted to tell the story today of a woman named Regina Wilson. She's a firefighter whose story we tell in a documentary that we have airing tonight at 10:00 PM on CNN. We wanted to look at the role of women at Ground Zero who served, and as part of our documentary, we told the story of Regina Wilson. Take a look.


REGINA WILSON, NEW YORK FIRE DEPARTMENT: My name is Regina Wilson and I am a firefighter for the city of New York.

CHILDREN: Good morning!

WILSON: Who here knows what a firefighter does?

O'BRIEN (voice-over): These Manhattan kindergartners are too young to have witnessed the terror or the heroism of 9/11.

WILSON: If you want to do anything at all, you can do it.

O'BRIEN: Regina's challenge is convincing these girls that the value of serving is greater than the danger.

BRENDA BERKMAN, NEW YORK FIRE DEPT. (RET.): These are all women -- they're holding -- see this hose line here?

O'BRIEN: Brenda Berkman fought for that right in 1979 when she sued the fire department for gender discrimination.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Gina, ready to go?

WILSON: Ready.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, let's get that over the edge.

O'BRIEN: Twelve years ago, Regina joined Engine 219 in Brooklyn, a beneficiary of Brenda's lawsuit.

WILSON: Sir, can you please put your arms around my neck?

O'BRIEN: She became the first firefighter in her family.

(on camera): This is not an easy job.

WILSON: Right.

O'BRIEN: And it's a scary job and it's a job where you could die on the job.

WILSON: Right.

O'BRIEN: Why is this something that you fought to be part of?

WILSON: Because I think it's a cause worthy of that. Everyone needs somebody to look out for them. And I think, like, the purest part of my job is when I'm in uniform because you can't tell my race. You can't tell my gender.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Regina hopes more women will follow her into firefighting. Yet 10 years after 9/11, the fire department has fewer female firefighters.

(on camera): How many female firefighters are there in the city?

WILSON: Twenty-nine.

O'BRIEN: Out of?

WILSON: A little close to 11,000.

O'BRIEN: Twenty-nine out of 11,000?

WILSON: Yes. So we're not even a percentage.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): The fire department recently launched a recruiting drive. Regina is always looking for new female firefighters.

WILSON: I always feel like I'm doing something for my community.


O'BRIEN: Regina has now left her fire station temporarily because she's focusing full-time on recruiting because only every four years do they give the firefighters' test. She wants to make sure that her face is out there so many other women will see her face and realize that firefighting is a great job for women, as well -- Anderson.

COOPER: How tough is it for a woman to join the New York City Fire Department? I mean, is it the same test that male firefighters have to go through?

O'BRIEN: It is. And what's -- you know, what's interesting, when you talk to Regina and see her workout regime -- because she said, you know, many people just think the job is physical, and it is, but it's physical, and a woman who's strong can do it. And she is a strong woman. And so we follow her around through her workouts and see that she is able to do exactly what everyone else is able to do.

What's also interesting, I think, is the changes over the last 10 years that have really come about in the fire department, which is there's much more, you know, emphasis placed on book learning. Keep in mind the massive amount of experience that was lost when 343 firefighters lost their lives on 9/11. That was tons of experience. So the idea of learning on the job, which is the way things were done, you know, 10 years ago and before that, that's really changed.

The focus has changed. There's not the people, we were told, that really could do that across the board at all the fire stations. So now they focus much more on training people before they go out and start the job. It's not learning on the job. Things have really changed a lot to a large degree in firehouses across New York City.

CROWLEY: Hey, Soledad, is there a theory as to why there are so few women? I'm assuming there are also fewer women who apply percentage-wise than men.

O'BRIEN: They believe it's completely about recruitment, and especially here in New York, where firefighting is a job that is often passed down from father to son, father to son. They really want to get more women's faces out there so women can see that women are doing the job.

But you know, there are some cities like San Francisco and the city -- Miami-Dade, for example, that have as high as 15 percent -- 15 percent of the firefighting force is female. So they believe those numbers are changeable. It's just going to be a matter of really aggressively recruiting women for what is a terrific job.

That noise, by the way, over my shoulder at the memorial here at 100th Street and Riverside is a number of speeches now and people making presentations in what really literally is one of the most beautiful memorials in New York City, the Firefighters Memorial, which was placed there in 1913. And the last 10 years, it's where firefighters have come to pay their respects to the 343 firefighters who died.

I hope they all have a chance to watch our documentary tonight, airs at 10:00 PM Eastern. It's called "Beyond Bravery: Women at Ground Zero."

COOPER: Soledad, thanks.

CROWLEY: Thanks, Soledad. We also want to remind our viewers "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS" is still to come in its entirety when we wrap up our coverage here.

Just ahead, canine search-and-rescue dogs were a common sight here 10 years ago, sniffing through the wreckage of the World Trade Center on September 11. Next up, a memorial commemorating their contributions.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) CROWLEY: You are looking at pictures of the president of the United States, and of course, first lady Michelle Obama there in Shanksville at the memorial there. And talk about your pastoral scene. I mean, it gives you a sense of how far away -- we had two cities attacked, and then here this plane, where that was that horrendous fight in the cockpit, that went down in rural Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

COOPER: President Obama and Michelle Obama were here at the World Trade site earlier this morning, along with former president Bush and his wife, Laura, and their daughters. He will also then go on to the Pentagon along with the first lady, Michelle Obama, for a commemoration ceremony there.

The survivors of the 9/11 terror attacks tell remarkable stories about finding their way to safety. Michael Hingson was inside the World Trade Center but never saw anything because he's blind and got out with the help of his guide dog. He told the story to CNN's Alina Cho.


ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The images are seared in our collective memory. For Michael Hingson, 9/11 was not about what he saw but what he heard. Blind since birth, Hingson was working on the 78th floor of the north tower when 18 floors above him, the first plane struck.

(on camera): When did you first realize that something was wrong?

MICHAEL HINGSON, 9/11 WORLD TRADE CENTER SURVIVOR: Instantly because what happened was that we heard a muffled explosion, the building shuddered, and then if you imagine my arm as the tower, it just started tipping. And it kept tipping and tipping and tipping. We moved about 20 feet.

CHO (voice-over): He knew he had to get out. He also knew he needed help. So he turned to his lifeline, guide dog Roselle (ph), his constant companion for 12 years.

HINGSON: I took her leash. I told her to heel, which meant come on my left side and sit, which she did. At about that time, the building dropped straight down about six feet.

CHO: With time running out, Hingson made his way to stairwell B and began his descent.

(on camera): 1,463 steps.

HINGSON: At least that's what I calculate. I don't count stairs, but it gave me something to do going down. I knew that there were 19 stairs between floors. So later, 77 flights, I calculated 1,463.

CHO (voice-over): Along the way, a critical clue -- a familiar odor.

HINGSON: It wasn't something that I expected to encounter in the World Trade Center. And finally, I realized that's what I smell when I go to an airport.

CHO: Jet fuel.

HINGSON: So we assumed we were hit by an airplane, but we had no information.

CHO: Scared for his life, somehow he remained calm so Roselle wouldn't panic.

HINGSON: If I started acting nervous, if I started sounding fearful, that would have made Roselle nervous. She depends on me to be focused. Her job is to make sure we walk safely, not to know where I want to go. So I have to give her commands. The more confident I am, the more comfortable she is.

CHO: His calm helped keep his co-workers focused, too.

HINGSON: David kept shouting, We got to get out of here! And I said, Slow down, we're going to evacuate in an orderly way. You got the picture, right? The sighted guy is seeing all this stuff going on and the blind guy who can't say anything is saying, We'll get out of here, but we're going to do it in an orderly way.

At one point on the stairs, we all stopped because a woman near us stopped and said, I can't go on, I can't breathe, we're not going to make it out of here. We stopped and had a group hug.

CHO: What haunts him the most 10 years later are memories of running into firemen who were headed up into the hell above.

CHO: He petted Roselle. She gave him some kisses, which was probably the last unconditional love he ever got in his life. And if he made it out, I never heard it.

CHO: Forty-five minutes after he began his escape, Hingson finally made it to ground level. This is video his colleagues shot as they fled the north tower. By late afternoon, he and Roselle found refuge at a friend's apartment.

(on camera): Your story resonated with so many people around the world because of what people perceive to be the extraordinary nature of your escape. I don't sense that you feel it was any more extraordinary than anyone else's escape.

HINGSON: I think that it was a miracle that so many people got out, how so many people worked together in the face of so many odds. And working with Roselle was one example of teamwork.

CHO (voice-over): Alina Cho, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COOPER: It was extraordinary that so many people were able to get out alive. Remember on that day, we all worried about the numbers of potential casualties. They had body bags, 30,000, I think, body bags put aside. Thankfully, the numbers were not nearly that.

There were many four-legged heroes in the aftermath of 9/11. Canine search-and-rescue dogs were a common sight sniffing through the wreckage of the World Trade Center. There are a lot of photographs of the dogs that worked. The American Kennel Club sent canine teams to ground zero moments after the attack. The dogs worked tirelessly over the coming days to help find and recover the victims.

Many of those dogs are being honored today in New Jersey. The group Finding One Another is paying tribute to members of the canine search-and-rescue community, volunteers and professional, canine and human, who served during the 9/11 disaster.

Let's listen in to some of the reading of the names, the final reading of the names this morning here, this afternoon at the World Trade Center site.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Andrew Sergio Paulos (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Peter Vega (ph), and my late husband, James Patrick Ladley (ph). We were blessed to have you in our life, Jimmy. We miss you and we will never forget you. Thank you for my two beautiful children. I honor your memory by keeping them close to heart, just like you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Alan L. Brzinowski (ph) (INAUDIBLE) brother, Brian Christopher Novotny (ph). May God bless you. God bless America.

CHOIR (singing): I will remember you. Will you remember me? Don't let your life pass you by. Weep not for the memory. I'm so tired, but I can't sleep standing on the edge of something much too deep. We feel so much but cannot say a word. Though we are screaming inside, we can't be heard.

I will remember you. Will you remember me? I will remember. Don't let your life pass you by. Weep not for the memories. Remember the good times that we had. (INAUDIBLE) let them slip away from us when things got bad. Once there was a darkness, deep and endless night. You gave me everything. You gave me light.

I will remember you. I will remember. Will you remember me? I will remember. Don't let your life pass you by. Weep not for the memories. Don't let your life pass you by. Weep not for the memories. I will remember you.


MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, NEW YORK CITY: Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses that they have. The sea rises. The light fails. Lovers cling to each other. And children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.


COOPER: The crowds have begun to thin out, family members, though, still remaining. "Taps" is played. It has been an extraordinary several hours here at the site of the World Trade Center, the new towers rising, the footprints of the old towers still remain.

Wolf Blitzer is at the Pentagon. Soledad O'Brien is at the firemen's memorial further uptown here in Manhattan.

Soledad, a different ceremony that you are witnessing today, but extremely emotional, as well, for the hundreds of firefighters who attended, thousands probably, to honor those more than 340 firefighters who lost their lives here on 9/11.

O'BRIEN: Yes. You know, they really wanted the event today here at 100th and Riverside to be not about speeches and not about politicians. They told me that several times. They said, This is about firemen, firefighters honoring firefighters and remembering firefighters. And so that's what they did. They had a simple and very beautiful ceremony, and it was not punctuated by anyone talking or anything other than people just really expressing their remarkable support for the heroic actions of the 343 firefighters who lost their lives on that day.

For the last 10 years, they've come to the Firefighters Memorial to hold, you know, a kind of mostly sort of private event, really just for firefighters and their families. And they say they'll be back again next year, doing the same thing, remembering people in a very simple way because that's ultimately what it's all about -- Anderson.

COOPER: And Wolf, at the Pentagon, where President Obama will be arriving later, again, another solemn memorial.

BLITZER: Very solemn, very moving. Ten years. Hard to believe, Anderson, it's been 10 years since 9/11, that moment when we first learned what was going on, something all of us who lived through it will never forget.

And you know, I'm struck by the fact that during these 10 years, something didn't happen that I assumed would happen often over the 10 years, another spectacular terrorist attack against Americans in the United States. That has not happened, and all of us are grateful for all those who prevented that from happening over this past decade.

At the same time, I'm also haunted by fact there are still individuals out there, there are terrorists out there, whether lone wolves or organized groups, who hate the United States, who hate America, and would like nothing more than to once again undertake this kind of terror attack against the United States, perhaps even something more dramatic, even something more deadly.

So even though al Qaeda may be on the ropes right now, there are still people out there who hate the United States. And all of us, of course, have to appreciate that as we go forward, which will be for a very, very long time with the so-called constant concern about terrorism out there (ph) -- Anderson.

COOPER: And today, we also want to keep in mind the day -- this was a day of work for thousands of New York City police officers, Port Authority personnel, as well as National Guard personnel. And our thoughts and our appreciation go out to them and to all the members of our fighting forces who are serving overseas, keeping us and many around the world safe.

CROWLEY: Now, 2,977 people died 10 years ago today. I know there will be a time moving forward in history where this day doesn't have the emotional attachment, the personal emotional attachment and sadness that it has. But 10 years is not nearly long enough.

COOPER: Yes, it certainly is not, nor likely will it ever be.

For Candy Crowley, Wolf Blitzer, John King, Soledad O'Brien, and all our correspondents, thank you for watching. Our (ph) coverage for our viewers in the United States. "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS" is next. And (INAUDIBLE) Becky Anderson takes over the memorial coverage for our international viewers.

Thanks very much.