Hometown Heroes: U.P. fire captain reflects on his 9/11 experience, 20 years later

Michigan

AHMEEK, Mich. (WJMN) – As we reflect 20 year after the 9/11 attacks, one Keweenaw County man is sharing his story of what it was like to be at the Pentagon on that tragic day.

“On September 11, 2001, I was working that day at Washington National Airport and I was the first arriving fire battalion chief at the Pentagon after the aircraft crashed into the building,” said Michael Defina, Fire Captain, Ahmeek Volunteer Fire Department.

It’s not something he talks about often, but 20 years later, Defina, recalls with Local 3 News his role in helping to save lives in the 9/11 attacks as member of the fire department for Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

“After watching the incident with the Twin Towers in New York City, we knew this was no accident,” said Defina.

When first arriving to the Pentagon, Defina says it was a surreal scene.

“A lot of smoke and fire obscuring the area,” said Defina. “Difficult to maneuver in. My first priority as the battalion chief was to try to make some order out of the chaos, ensure safe conditions for other arriving emergency responders and to extinguish the fires burning immediately outside of the building to create a safe means of eagerness for those survivors who were able to escape on their own.”

In the morning hours, Defina says he assisted with incident management where the aircraft impacted the building. By the afternoon, he led a task force of five engine companies deep into the building for search and rescue operations.

“By the afternoon, there were no additional survivors that we could find within the building,” said Defina.

Even though the tragedy had struck on that unforgettable Tuesday, many responders like Defina had to return to the scene for more work to be done.

“On the morning of September 12, we were assigned to work on the roof of the Pentagon,” said Defina. “There were many void spaces within the roof structure where fuel had gotten in there and a lot of items were burning. Part of the roof structure itself we were told by military officials that the fire had to be stopped by a certain point in the building otherwise the country would shutdown literally.”

Defina spent 31 years with that department. He retired in 2018 and moved to the Upper Peninsula where his wife is from. From his career experience, he’s been able to give back to the Ahmeek Village community.

“We certainly enjoy the area love the people and have settled down and have made a home here,” said Defina.

Defina says he considers himself very fortunate to be a 9/11 survivor.

“There were many heroing experiences throughout the fire fight and the rescue attempt and even though I have some long lasting physical effects, some ailments due to exposures that I suffered at the Pentagon I consider myself very fortunate based upon the fact that 343 firefighters lost their lives that day at the World Trade Center,” said Defina. “So with that, I am very thankful. It was certainly a humbling experience and you no longer take for granted things like your freedom and you appreciate what you have and your family that much more.”

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