Twenty years after New York City firefighter Leon Smith left Ladder 118 in Brooklyn and responded to the burning twin towers, the pain is still there, just beneath the surface, for Irene Smith: a parent who watched her first responder child rush to the scene that bright Tuesday morning.
“When it comes to 9/11, it takes me all the way back, all the way back to that day,” Irene Smith said. “I saw the towers falling. I didn’t know Leon was in there when the towers was falling.”
That’s because Leon Smith – a 19-year department veteran – typically helped operate a ladder truck.
So, for the last two decades, Irene Smith has worked tirelessly toward a singular goal – to make sure the country continues to remember the sacrifice of Leon Smith, and the 11 other firefighters who looked like him: not remembered or honored more, but the same as the rest of the 343 FDNY members who gave their lives that day.
“I will keep his name alive,” she said. “There are so many people who do not even know there was 12 Black firefighters.”
Irene Smith and FDNY Captain Paul Washington both say there have been a number of slights to the memories of the Black firefighters who lost their lives that day.
“It’s not unique for Black firefighters to remember their own,” Washington said.
Washington and Smith recalled one nationally televised moment in particular: a scene from an episode of “Saturday Night Live,” broadcast in the days after the attacks.It was recounted in a subsequent documentary by SNL Executive Pooducer Lorne Michaels and singer/songwriter Paul Simon.
“Every last one of which was white, except for one, and I think that kind of set the tone,” Washington said. “It’s important to put out there to show that Blacks sacrificed, that we died at this fire, in this tragedy as well.”
The 12 Black firefighters, among the 343 who were killed on 9/11, include:
And Leon Smith, Jr.
Many of their families have moved away, or passed away in the last 10 years.
But in 2021, those who we are still fortunate enough to have with us, including 96-year old Ethel Henry, remain eager and grateful for the opportunity to proudly keep their loved one’s legacies alive.
Ethel Henry’s son, firefighter William Henry – a 20-year department veteran, was based in Rescue 1 in Manhattan.
“I remember everything about him,” his mom said. “He was a loving person. He cared about other people. I think about him all the time, what could have been. And I feel he did what he wanted to do because he was off that morning and he turned around and went back. And I sat in the kitchen watching all of this.”
The loved ones left behind hav watched the FDNY change over the last two decades.
For Irene Smith, any discussion about her son’s ultimate sacrifice must also include the harassment he faced on the job, as well as the Department’s efforts to improve its culture.
She said there’s not a moment when she isn’t thinking of her son.
“Leon was my only child,” she said. “His spirit is all around this house.”