Firefighters stay tied to N.Y. brethren
Tragedy remains close to 'Portland Boys' since helping at ground zero
Wes Louckes will pay homage to New York City on Oct. 12.
That's the day New York firefighters officially will honor the 343 comrades who died in the attacks last year.
Louckes, 53, a Portland firefighter for 20 years, and some of his fellow firefighters at Station 1 downtown have a special relationship with New York's firefighters: They were one of the few nonfederal agency groups that were allowed to work at the fallen World Trade Center towers, and they've been participating in a cross-country friendship exchange for the past 15 years.
In fact, as soon as he turned on his television that morning, Louckes said, he recognized the soot-covered New York firefighter running out of the dust as Billy Quick, whom he's known for 15 years.
When Louckes' 15-year-old son turned to him and said, 'I wish I could go back there and help them,' Louckes knew he would go.
That evening, he and three of his colleagues Ñ Neil Martin, Dwight Englert and Ed Hall Ñ began making plans to travel there, using vacation time. They nearly ended up driving across the country because all flights were grounded, unavailable or too expensive. They finally landed a deal with an airline and were able to fly out on the night of the 14th.
The first view of the destruction was horrifying, Louckes said. 'It was like, this is for real,' he said. 'It was like flying into a war zone. I was in Vietnam. It was kind of the same feeling.'
Louckes and his contingent connected with Quick and easily gained access to the front lines, which firefighters simply called 'the pile,' rather than ground zero.
They lived for a few days at Ladder 134, the main fire station in Queens. Louckes remembers seeing two lists on a wall Ñ a large one with hundreds of names of the missing and a small one with those confirmed dead.
'It was probably the most humbling experience I've ever had,' he said. 'It was something you hope you'll never see again.'
Much of the week they worked on the bucket brigade, where hundreds of workers passed buckets of debris from Point A to Point B. The contents of each bucket were sifted for remains.
On the faces of their comrades, they saw anger, grief and blankness, Louckes said. They constantly saw eyes brimming with tears.
'Thank you for being here,' they heard a lot. They had a constant supply of food and water as they worked. A group of kindergartners sent boxes of sack lunches for the firefighters.
They soon became known as the 'Portland Boys.' Some saw their shirts, which read 'Portland Fire,' and assumed they were from Portland, Maine. 'No, we're from Oregon,' Louckes told them. 'They couldn't believe it,' he said. 'They welcomed us like their long-lost brothers.'
In March, Louckes and two of the other three firefighters who made the September trip went back to New York to march with the FDNY in the St. Patrick's Day parade.
Late last month, they helped dedicate the opening of an exhibit by Marvel Comics at the Lloyd Center, which portrays firefighters and police officers as real-life heroes. Portland was the first stop on the U.S. tour.