HARRISONBURG — A normal day began for Donald Ouckama, a Vietnam combat veteran, as he took the train to work in New York City on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Going towards my office, everything was fine,” he said. “I got to the office, and then all of the sudden, all hell broke loose.”
Ouckama worked at one of the engineering firms that erected some of the tallest buildings in the United States — the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.
One day and 18 years ago, terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and crashed two into the Twin Towers and a third into the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C.
Passengers of the fourth plane fought the hijackers for control of the craft, resulting in the airliner crashing in rural Pennsylvania.
In total, nearly 3,000 lives were lost and over 6,000 people were wounded as a result of the attacks.
Of those several thousand deaths, 412 were American first responders in New York who gave their lives to save as many people from the World Trade Center as they could.
Ouckama and his wife, Valerie Ouckama, were among about 150 people present at the AMVETS Post 7 first responders appreciation dinner on Wednesday night to both remember the first responders who died during 9/11 and to recognize local first responders for their daily sacrifices.
After the buildings collapsed, a silence engulfed New York City, said Valerie Ouckama, a native of Manhattan who worked in the city until the couple moved to Harrisonburg in 2008.
“It’s a city that never sleeps, but at that moment, it was almost a city that had woken up from a nightmare,” she said.
Of the heroic first responders, 343 worked for the New York City Fire Department, 37 for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department, 23 from the New York Police Department, eight emergency medical technicians from private health companies, and one New York Fire patrolman.
These men and women knew the risks when they signed up to help others in life-threatening positions, and area first responders have taken the same oath.
“This is a calling for most of us — we love this,” said Ian Bennett, chief of the Harrisonburg Fire Department.
First responders, such as J.T. Gajewski, Andrew Krauss, Brian Young and Nathan Stillman, of the Harrisonburg Rescue Squad, said they were thankful for the recognition at the event.
“We see firsthand a lot of the things that go on as first responders, and perspectives on those who lost their lives doing what we have a passion for doing means a lot for us,” Stillman said.
Whitey Turner, the first vice commander of AMVETS Post 7, organized the event, which featured food and various speakers, such as retired Del. Arthur “Pete” Giesen.
Giesen, a Radford native, represented a number of Valley localities over 30 years as a state representative in Richmond.
“It’s only been recently that first responders have gotten the recognition they should be getting,” he said. “We’ve had police and firemen and other types of first responders ever since I can remember.”
Before closing the dinner with an invocation, Turner presented $500 to the Harrisonburg fire and police departments, the Rockingham County Sheriff’s Office and the Harrisonburg Rescue Squad.
The veterans also presented $200 to the Harrisonburg High School ROTC, which had presented the colors at the event.
Jo Davis, a member of AMVETS Post 7, coordinated the decorations and food preparation for the guests.
Both her and Turner and said they promised a “bigger and better” event next year.