For 17 years, September 11 has been a sacred day for FDNY Battalion Chief Joseph Downey, who lost his father, decorated FDNY Deputy Chief Ray Downey, in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.
But this year, the younger Downey — a veteran firefighter himself — marked the occasion by doing what his father did: reporting for duty prepared to save lives amid disaster.
“For me, personally it was difficult,” Downey said of his deployment to North Carolina, where he and 82 other elite members of New York City’s police and fire departments were dispatched on Tuesday to help local authorities — and a host of other highly-trained units from New York — battle Hurricane Florence.
He added, “But I knew that the guys that had passed on 9/11, that were part of the team, would want us to continue their legacy and deploy down. My dad started this system. He was one of the founding fathers of the Urban Search and Rescue program, so I’m proud to follow and bring a team down here.”
Downey, 56, of West Islip, who is now leading the Urban Search and Rescue task force, said conditions in North Carolina in the city of Bayboro, Pamlico County, on Wednesday were dry and tranquil — the literal calm before the Category 2 storm set to strike the area as early as late Thursday or early Friday.
But the team is prepared, he said, adding that the task force consists of experts in the special operations or emergency services units of the FDNY and NYPD.
The same group was in North Carolina two years ago during Hurricane Matthew, where they performed several rescues. NYPD Lt. Barry Duignan, a 25-year veteran, was with them then and now.
“I got into the Emergency Service Unit in 2005 as a way to increase my level of training and try and help people,” said Duignan, 48, who is also from Long Island. “This task force was another way to branch out on something like that. It gives you that opportunity. There’s an intrinsic reward with something like that.”
He recalled the Urban Search and Rescue task force participating in a number of high-water evacuations last time around.
And this time they’re not alone, Downey said, adding that as many as 17 similar teams from other states, including New Jersey — but also some from as far away as Vermont — have descended on the Tar Heel State ready to assist when the storm makes landfall, and they are all bracing for what may come.
In addition, 50 airmen from the Westhampton Beach-based 106th Rescue Wing of the New York Air National Guard were preparing to head south to aid the response to Hurricane Florence, Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office announced Wednesday.
Boats and aircraft will stage to assist areas hit by the hurricane.
The New York Army National Guard is also ready to deploy two CH-47 Chinook heavy lift helicopters and two UH-60 Black Hawk medical evacuation helicopters, the governor said.
"New York knows firsthand the devastation that extreme weather can leave behind," Cuomo said. "Just as we have stood shoulder to shoulder with Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida after last year's destructive storms, we will once again stand ready to lend a hand to our fellow Americans."
The assignment’s timing forced Downey to recall the sacrifices of the 343 firefighters, including his father, who perished on 9/11 17 years ago when the Twin Towers crashed to the ground.
“That’s what we do as firemen and policemen,” he said. “There’s always danger.”