John Lambkin and Joe Gavitt

John Lambkin (left) and Joe Gavitt (right) were at Ground Zero minutes after the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. As New York first responders, they spent months entrenched in the recovery effort, sorting through the ruins to try to find victims. They came to Mount Vernon on Saturday and spoke about their experience to an overflow crowd at Ariel-Foundation Park's Schnormeier Event Center.

MOUNT VERNON – On the morning of September 11, 2001, John Lambkin and Joe Gavitt stood at the epicenter of the deadliest terrorist attack in U.S. history.

As everyone ran away from America’s worst nightmare, they ran toward it.

The two former New York City first responders shared their stories at Mount Vernon’s Ariel-Foundation Park on Saturday. An overflow crowd filled the Schnormeier Event Center to hear Lambkin, a retired New York police officer, and Gavitt, a retired New York fireman, speak about the pain – and hope – that rose from the ruins in lower Manhattan.

“There are many things that will stay with me from those days. Seeing fighter jets in New York City providing air cover; dense smoke covering the entire lower part of Manhattan; fires that burned for days,” Lambkin said. “The positive side was seeing the coming together of community – driving home five days after 9/11 and seeing all the yellow ribbons and American flags being waved. Truly powerful.”

Lambkin and Gavitt’s heartfelt testimony kicked off a day full of activities at Ariel-Foundation Park, all aimed at showcasing and honoring first responders. The fourth annual Rastin Challenge welcomed first responders from agencies across central Ohio, as they competed in obstacle course races, combat challenges and the daunting Rastin Tower stair climb.

Hundreds of visitors also toured the Never Forget 9/11 mobile exhibit, which received a warm welcome when it rolled into town via a police escort on Friday night. The exhibit was presented by three 9/11 first responders – all members of the New York Fire Department who stood amongst the rubble on that fateful day. They shared stories and presented artifacts from Ground Zero, providing an authentic, informative experience for spectators of all ages.

The emphasis on 9/11 education at this year’s Rastin Challenge coincided with the event’s original mission, Ariel-Foundation Park marketing director Carrie Haver said.

During the Rastin Challenge, four firefighters from each agency race to the top of the Rastin Tower and back down, relay-style. They are in full gear during the event. This is because four trips up the Rastin Tower stairwell is approximately how far firefighters climbed in the World Trade Center on 9/11, Haver said.

When Mount Vernon businessman Tom Rastin started the event in 2016, he wanted to make sure the stair climb not only served as a tribute to local first responders, but also those who risked their lives in New York on 9/11.

This year’s educational piece added to that concept.

“You know the old saying, ‘Those who don’t know their history may be doomed to repeat it.’ That’s paraphrasing a little bit, but it is so important to know the facts about what happened that day, why it happened, the causes behind it, and the heroes that rose to the surface that day,” Haver said. “It’s something that we don’t ever want to forget.”

‘You didn't want to leave’

Lambkin and Gavitt, who grew up together in Brooklyn and have known each other for 40-plus years, were both scheduled off on September 11, 2001. But when they heard one hijacked plane had crashed into the World Trade Center, and then another, their instincts took over.

“Once a fireman, always a fireman; once a cop, always a cop,” Gavitt said with a smile and a thick New York accent. “You’re going to do the right thing.”

Lambkin and Gavitt 2

John Lambkin (left) and Joe Gavitt speak to the crowd at Ariel-Foundation Park on Saturday, August 24, 2019.

Lambkin served as the supervisor of an emergency services unit at the time. His main objective that day was getting everyone in his unit back safely. This meant taking head counts and organizing search efforts.

Many EMS units charged toward the World Trade Center when the terrorist attacks occurred, and tragically, many service members did not make it out alive. Fourteen men and women in NYPD EMS units perished that day.

Meanwhile, Gavitt’s firehouse commandeered two city buses that morning before heading toward the city. They spent the day putting out blistering fires in neighboring buildings, including one that was eight stories high.

For New York first responders, the Ground Zero recovery effort lasted for months. Lambkin recalled working 15-hour days, nonstop, from September 11 to Christmas Day. Gavitt said he slept on a cot on West Street in Manhattan in between long days of work.

“You just laid down out of exhaustion, got back up and went and did it again,” Gavitt said. “You didn’t want to leave, you wanted to be there.”

The nature of the recovery mission changed quickly in the days and weeks that followed 9/11.

“Once you realize it wasn’t going to be a rescue operation, it was going to be a recovery operation, it felt important when you did find someone or pieces of someone, that their family members got closure,” Gavitt said.

What wore down first responders during that time wasn’t just the grueling physical work, Lambkin said, it was also the mental aspect. Many victims were never found due to the nature of the attacks; when the planes hit the World Trade Center towers, the towers collapsed in 12 seconds, and much of what sat inside was pulverized into dust.

“You’d go down and you think you’re going to find a lot,” Lambkin said. “And the way it was so pulverized and incinerated, you unfortunately didn’t.”

What kept them going was the support of those in New York, and across the world, who sent them food, clothes and encouragement.

“If it wasn’t for the support of the community… we never would have been done,” Lambkin said.

‘It's still fresh in our minds’

Lambkin and Gavitt don’t typically speak about their 9/11 experiences in front of crowds. But when they were contacted by Ariel Corporation security manager Gary Rohler through mutual friends, they decided to fly from New York to Mount Vernon last weekend. They were excited to see the Rastin Challenge, and they were honored to represent those who lost their lives that day.

That said, even 18 years later, Saturday wasn’t easy for the retired New York first responders.

“I was very emotional. I was almost brought to tears, just thinking about – you know, it’s 18 years ago, but it’s still fresh in our minds,” Gavitt said afterwards. “Every time you think about it or the conversation’s brought up, it’s just right back, it rekindles it.”

In a way, though, Lambkin said the day reminded them of why they joined the police and fire departments in the first place. When they saw the massive crowd at Ariel-Foundation Park, and they saw the community’s support for its own first responders, Lambkin said he felt rejuvenated.

“Stuff like this… it just brings it back,” Lambkin said. “That was our true passion, our true love, to do that type of work.”

Gavitt and Lambkin received multiple standing ovations from the Knox County crowd during Saturday’s ceremony. They stayed after to shake hands and take pictures, as many local residents lined up to meet them.

Mount Vernon fire chief Chad Christopher presented both men with medals for their service, and he gave Gavitt a Mount Vernon Fire Department helmet, pronouncing him an honorary fireman for the day. Lambkin received a glass plaque from Mount Vernon police chief Roger Monroe, with the officer’s oath inscribed on it.

Joe Gavitt

Mount Vernon fire chief Chad Christopher (left) presents retired New York firefighter Joe Gavitt with an honorary MVFD helmet.

Before they sat down, Lambkin and Gavitt – both 20-year service veterans – shared words of wisdom with the local first responders in attendance.

“I will say that your training and experience will kick in,” Lambkin said. “So take all your training seriously, as you never know when that call will come in.”

They urged spectators to never forget what happened on 9/11, and to support those who suffered – and continue to suffer – as a result of America's deadliest day. This includes the large contingent of first responders who are now ill due to the toxins they inhaled during recovery efforts.

“When I’m asked, ‘What would you like people to remember about September 11?’, it would be to never forget the sacrifices made by those who never returned, and those families that had to go on without their loved ones,” Lambkin said. “Also, as our first responder community is still getting sick and dying from 9/11-related illnesses, they still need all our support. Let’s do what we can for all those heroes.”

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