A Fireman’s Daughter
Remarks given at the Annual Firemen’s
Banquet on January 19, 2002 at Stanley, North Dakota
by Jenette Nelson (Annie’s Mom)
On September 11, 2001, an American plane was stolen and flown into the side of the North tower of the world trade center. A few minutes later another stolen plane hit the south tower. Within the hour, thousands of Americans lost their lives in what may go down in history as the worst fire to ever occur in our country.
Those who were lost included some of our most highly trained and successful citizens. They were targeted because it was believed that their loss would cripple us. They included communications experts, financiers, insurance brokers, gourmet chefs, book publishers, retailers and a variety of other professionals.
Over three hundred of them were firefighters and at least one of them was a fireman’s daughter. Her name is Ann Nicole Nelson from Stanley, North Dakota. Her father, Gary, was an active member of this very unit for 20 years.
Ann grew up knowing that fighting fires was important. She knew that when that call came, all other activities ceased and Dad jumped in his pickup and hurried off to help whoever or whatever was threatened. She knew that it was up to the rest of their family to take care whatever else needed doing until he returned. Fighting fires was not just Dad’s job. The whole family had to help.
She knew that Mom used to worry if it got to be a long time before Dad came home. She would look out the window a lot and stay very close to the phone. It was not a time to chat with friends. Oh, there were fun times too. Being a fireman’s daughter meant picnics at the fire hall and rides in the fire truck. Ann was especially proud to be sponsored by the Stanley Firemen when she competed in the Little Miss North Dakota Pageant. She was only five years old at the time.
Her gymnastics and dance teacher, Joyce Graff, had told her about this competition in Minot, and had suggested that she might be a good contestant. Ann’s eyes were wide with excitement as she told me about how she might win a “tropy.” When we learned that she would need a sponsor, the firemen were the first to be asked. They readily agreed to fully sponsor her, and I am pleased to report that she did win a “tropy” at that pageant, and made many new friends. As her Mom, I was proud, and also greatly relieved that I didn’t have to explain the finer points of not winning “tropys” at that time in Ann’s life. She did not compete in many pageants after that, but that little gold and purple statue that the firemen of Stanley helped her win, still stands on her dresser at home.
Being the wife of a fireman meant being part of a team. When Gary was out fighting fires away from home, I had to be “putting out the fires “ at home without his help. We both had to be willing to do things that were difficult, and at times dangerous, in order to help others who were in need. It meant long hours of training and drill for him, and long, hard hours of picking up the slack for me. At times it seemed hard to appreciate the importance of what we were doing. After all, Gary already had a day job at the bank and ranched and farmed during most of his other waking hours. Why fill the few precious hours of family time that were ours with a volunteer fireman’s position? Sometimes I found it hard to answer that question for myself, but something kept me from vocalizing it.
There was something about the way those fireman alertly dropped their gear and answered that fire call that let me know that being a part of this unit was more than a whim or a passing interest. Although they did not talk about what they did often or much, I knew that they cross trained and each of them had developed the necessary skills, not only to put out a fire, but also to go into a fire to save the lives of those who might be trapped there. I remember the time that I found out that it was Gary’s turn to help carry the fire hose into the fire, if it should occur. Now I was really worried! What would we do without him if something should go wrong? I do not remember what he answered when I raised the question, but I do remember the look he got in his eyes when he talked about the importance of protecting our fellow citizens. He said that if our children were trapped in a fire he would want the best trained and bravest firefighters to be going in after them. It wouldn’t make any difference how much they were paid only how much they knew and how much they cared.
He further indicated that our family was lucky to be under the protection of the Stanley Fire Department because there was not a more dedicated or capable group anywhere. Our children grew up believing that.
Many of these memories flashed through my mind on the morning of September 11, when we turned on the news and saw the smoke and flames billowing out of the North Tower where our daughter worked. At that moment, I knew that firemen are heroes, and as I watched them run, not walk into that blazing inferno, when others were running in terror from it, I knew that firemen are born, not made. They are heroes of the highest order, and if there are positions of honor and glory on the other side, they will go to the firemen that gave their lives that day rather than the terrorists that stole and flew those planes.
We do not know what Ann’s final time on earth was like. But one thing we do know, and that was that if she were conscious of being in a fire, she would have known that somewhere firemen were looking for her, and if it were humanly possible they would save her or give their lives trying. She learned that when she lived in Stanley, North Dakota as a Fireman’s Daughter.