Remembering a day that changed history

Lt. J.J. Johnston (right) , of the Old Fort Fire Department, hugs a fellow firefighter as they pass him on the walk back over the Arthur Ravenel Bridge Friday morning. Johnston started the 9/11 walk across the bridge as a one person memorial to the 9/11 victims two years ago.

MOUNT PLEASANT — Fourteen years ago, Chevalo Wilsondebriano scrambled from the base of the north World Trade Center tower, his face caked with soot and his lungs full of dust.

But Wilsondebriano, who moved to the Lowcountry after retiring from the New York City Fire Department in 2008, downplayed his own injuries Friday, the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“I don’t even want to talk about that face because there are guys that made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said.

Wilsondebriano was the featured speaker aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown during a 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony that paid tribute to those lost on that day — and to first responders and members of the military.

Just a mile away, several dozen firefighters walked the Ravenel Bridge with flags and full gear to mark the anniversary.

Before Wilsondebriano threw a memorial wreath into the harbor, he shared his story of the events that ultimately caused him to leave his fire station in Queens and travel to lower Manhattan inside a bus-like ambulance — just as the first tower collapsed.

“I couldn’t see the tower anymore,” he said. “In my mind, I was saying that this can’t be true.”

He called his girlfriend of six years, who told him not to go any further downtown. “I told her I’ve got to get down there to my guys,” he said.

He was stationed near the North Tower when it became the second to fall. “I felt this big rumble. ... It sounded like the biggest train that could ever be underneath me,” he said. “I looked up and I saw the top of the tower twisting as it started to collapse.”

That evening, he and his girlfriend, Monique, agreed to marry. He returned to Ground Zero more than a dozen times to search for survivors, then for the dead.

“Violence is unnecessary. War is unnecessary. Emanuel Nine is unnecessary,” he said, referring to the nine church parishioners fatally shot in Charleston in June. “We as human beings have so much more in common than we have differences.”

Other speakers also talked about how the tragic events of 9/11 brought new hope.

Michael Allen, a singer-songwriter who co-wrote the song, “United Through It All” on the night of the attacks, talked about how the terrorists underestimated the U.S. response — much like the Japanese during Pearl Harbor.

And Lucy Weber, who moved to Mount Pleasant from Chester, N.Y., said her previous community lost a lot of people on 9/11, but it also gained something, too.

“The amazing thing was how everyone came together,” she said. “The unity was absolutely fabulous.”

Patriots Point Executive Director Mac Burdette said it’s very important to honor the approximately 3,000 lives lost at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon and aboard the four hijacked American Airlines and United planes — and the museum will offer free admission to all first responders Saturday as a gesture of thanks.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.