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Polson firefighters remember 9/11

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | September 14, 2023 12:00 AM

On Monday, the 22nd anniversary of 9/11, Polson firefighters, police officers and first responders took turns from dawn until dusk, standing vigil for those firefighters and first responders whose lives were lost trying to rescue others. They stand motionless, in full turnout gear, in front of a ladder truck. And as each hour passes, they salute the flag.

Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Straub, who coordinates the memorial, says it began in 2010. “We started with a few firefighters who would gather at our flag with a salute and moment of silence.”

When former Assistant Chief Terry Gembala told them that in Ferndale, firefighters took turns standing outside their station throughout the day, the Polson department organized a similar vigil. Beginning Sept. 11, 2013, firefighters would stand for one-hour shifts from sun-up to sun-down, with a short salute to the flag on the hour.

“In all the years, if there wasn’t an hour covered it would be filled with a firefighter that had already stood that day,” Straub says.

As the years went by, they began to invite other first responders, and have had members of the Lake County Sheriff’s Department, Polson Ambulance, Lake County Search and Rescue and Polson Police Department participate, as well as representatives of the armed forces.

“We feel honored to stand in full turnout to show tribute to the 343 firefighters that lost their lives that day,” Straub says.

Passersby wave, honk, salute and sometimes ask to have their pictures taken with the firefighters. Some leave flowers, food and drink. And while they don’t accept donations, some leave money as well.

Like most people who were adults on that day, Straub remembers where he was on Sept. 11, 2001. He was an officer with the Belgrade Fire Department and had just arrived at the station for a cup of coffee before heading to his other job when the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center.

“We had the news on and were talking about it when the next plane hit the south tower,” he recalls. “We sat there talking and taking in the attack until after the south tower collapsed.”

This marks the eighth year Polson Police Chief George Simpson has participated in the vigil. He was in the Navy, stationed in Maryland, when the planes struck the two towers and a third was flown into the Pentagon. A fourth was headed for the U.S. Capitol when passengers heroically diverted Flight 93, and it crashed into an empty field in Pennsylvania.

The entire nation was on high alert. Planes were grounded for two days.

“As you can imagine, being in such proximity to D.C. and the Pentagon came with responsibility,” he said. “It was an interesting time.”