The images of people jumping to their deaths from the Twin Towers are as sharp today as they were 10 years ago for Alfredo Fuentes.
“This vivid memory would come to play again and again in my life, and it has never faded away,” Fuentes recalled.
The retired New York City Fire Department captain saw the second plane hit and was trapped under a pile of rubble shortly after the first tower fell.
His memories of that day are sharp and clear, a contrast to those of the audience he addressed Wednesday afternoon.
Stagg High School in Palos Hills hosted Fuentes in honor of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The oldest students in the crowd were just 8 years old on the day Fuentes’ life was irrevocably changed.
Fuentes was in charge of the department’s marine unit that morning. He was making his way to the scene after ordering his fleet into position when the second plane hit.
He recalls a scene reminiscent of a war zone: Fires raging, smoke billowing and jumping people, always the jumping people.
“Instantly everything turned black with thunderous sounds of the crashing mass of steel and concrete forms,” Fuentes said.
That was the moment the first tower collapsed. He survived and started to seek his way out of the structure he used for cover. He remembers trying to help other workers out when more debris fell on him.
Fuentes was buried under a mound of rubble, and here his vivid memories stop. He thinks maybe this is his brain’s way of allowing him to cope.
While he was buried, he remained semi-conscious and was remarkably able to communicate via radio. In the years since, he has listened to those recordings. They are of his voice, but not of his memory.
“I have listened to them constantly, however, I do not remember,” he said.
He was eventually found by rescue workers hours later. He suffered nine fractured ribs, singed lungs and a severe head injury.
“I have always wondered why or how I survived when so many of my brothers died,” Fuentes said.
It was weeks before he knew the extent of the devastation brought upon his city and his country. Fuentes was placed in a medically induced coma and heard much later that the second tower also fell and many of his friends had died.
Diversity in the Face of Adversity
Stagg High School prides itself on diversity and cultural understanding. It is a message Fuentes reiterated throughout his remarks.
Fuentes, who moved to this country from Ecuador as a young child, urged students to always strive for success.
“I know the special role that all of you can play, and will play in the future of this nation,” he said.
The remembrance ceremony was topped off with the presence of many local first responders and a song specially written for the occasion. It was a powerful day for many of the assembled students.
“I was only in second grade when it happened,” said Grant Gornick, 17. “It is hard to even imagine what he went through.”
For senior Emily Morlock, 17, Stagg was a perfect venue for Fuentes’ message.
“Our school is so diverse and after 9/11 everyone came together,” Morlock said. “They wanted to set an example about how the rest of the country could come together as well.”
Social studies teacher Jennifer Baniewicz led the charge to bring Fuentes to Palos Hills.
“This has been a whole year in the making,” Baniewicz said. “I knew it was worth it. It was very significant for everyone. These students don’t remember life before 9/11.”