EVANSTON, Ill. -- Niko Mafuli lingered around the fire truck Tuesday after all his Northwestern teammates had stepped away from it.
He walked along the right side of the rig. With his football helmet in his right hand, Mafuli grazed the truck with his left hand. He was touching a piece of American history.
The rig had been boarded by eight New York City firefighters from the FDNY Rescue 4 unit on Sept. 11, 2001, and all eight died that day while trying to save people at the World Trade Center. The truck withstood damages and was the only operating rescue rig during the days following 9/11.
On Tuesday, the truck rolled up onto Northwestern’s practice field as a kickoff point for the Remembrance Rescue Project. Headed by Skokie firefighter Chris Gantz and other Chicago-area firefighters, the Remembrance Rescue Project is a non-profit organization that uses the historic rig as an educational tool to teach children about 9/11 and raises money for children of fallen firefighters.
The truck will also be present at Northwestern’s home opener against Eastern Illinois on Saturday.
“Everyone you ask about 9/11, you know where you were,” Gantz said. “It’s that flashbulb memory. You know exactly where you were, what you were doing and even what you were saying at that time. I was already firefighting at the time. It was one of those surreal experiences. I still remember to this day, I did not believe it was happening.
“To see the aftermath and the loss of civilian lives and from the public safety, it’s just never happened before. It’s important that our kids understand that and they understand how important that day was for America. That’s the whole premise of this project being able to share the experience that this truck had and the guys on it and continue that story for years to come.”
Even for Northwestern’s players, 10 years ago meant most of them were still in elementary school and were unable to grasp the significance of the day’s attacks.
“I was in class and my teacher had left for a little bit, and she came back in crying,” said Northwestern senior Jordan Mabin, who was then in fifth grade. “At the time, she tried to explain to us what happened. I was actually scared because I didn’t know what was going on. I thought American was getting attacked. I was scared.”
For Wildcats redshirt freshman Brandon Vitabile, who lived a 40-minute commute away from New York City in New Jersey, the day was even more unforgettable.
“I remember I was in fourth grade,” Vitabile said. “My mom worked 20 minutes from the city at the time. I remember talking to her, and she said from her window she saw the plane go in. They shut down all the public transit, and she couldn’t get home. Everything was chaotic. One of my friend’s dad’s was supposed to have a meeting at the World Trade Center in the basement, but he was late for the meeting for some reason. Thank God.”
Vitabile appreciated having the fire truck at Northwestern on Tuesday.
“I think it’s cool despite all the members of the crew passed away that it’s still going on; their memory is still living on,” Vitabile said. “There’s no way you can ever forget this.”
Northwestern senior Dan Persa also thought the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 put the game of football in perspective.
“The memory of 9/11 just makes you appreciate what you got, and we’re just playing football,” Persa said. “There’s some tragic things that happen in this country, and we’re lucky to have people like that defending it.”