NAPLES, Italy (NNS) -- “I was in second grade,” recalled Damage Controlman 3rd Class Eric Leather, a Sailor assigned to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney (DDG 64). “I didn’t find out what had happened until I was home from school, and even at that young of an age I knew that something earth shattering had happened.”
September 11, 2001, was a day that did not discriminate when impacting the life of every American citizen. Although the effects were felt by all, many citizens distinguished themselves by taking a stand against terrorism in ways as unique and diverse as the country that they hailed from.
While it was up to the President and his staff to strategize a national response, citizens who held jobs as teachers, doctors, lawyers and soccer coaches, who did not have control of America’s Sailors, Soldiers, Marines and Coast Guardsman, formed their own nonmilitant, but certainly not silent, opposition against terrorism. For those without access to the nation’s military, candles lit at memorial services, ballots dropped at polling stations and volunteer efforts at FEMA and the American Red Cross became to them what cruise missiles, bullets and flak jackets were to the military. Those teachers, doctors, lawyers and soccer coaches became uniformed service men and women, police officers, and in Eric Leather’s case, a volunteer firefighter.
“9/11 was a pivotal moment in my life,” said Leather. “Seeing the tragedies unfold and people still running in, running to help any and every way that they could. It made me realize that I wanted to do whatever I could to help people.”
The catastrophe of 9/11 inspired Leather to join the ranks of his local volunteer fire department in Toms River, New Jersey, where he was assigned to Station 26, Company 2.
“My time spent at the fire station was very rewarding,” said Leather. “I learned a lot from my fellow firefighters there and I wouldn’t give that experience up for the world.”
After serving three years as a volunteer firefighter at Station 26, Leather realized he wanted to combine his passion for firefighting and his desire to serve his country in the armed services into one ultimate goal. In April of 2016, Leather enlisted in the United States Navy as a Damage Controlman and his goal came to fruition.
“I joined the Navy to chase my dreams, and so far a lot of them have come true,” said Leather. “I wanted to serve, but I still wanted to be a firefighter. So, I asked my recruiter what jobs were similar to being a firefighter, and that’s how I became a Damage Controlman.”
Upon completing basic training at Recruit Training Command, and Damage Controlman “A” school in Great Lakes, Illinois, Leather received orders to USS Carney, homeported in Rota, Spain, where his goal of being a uniformed firefighter was fully realized. His day-to-day routine consists of training the ship’s crew on firefighting and damage control procedures, completing maintenance on essential damage control equipment, and in the event of an actual emergency, being a first responder in the mission of saving the ship.
Although now thousands of miles away from his previous firehouse and locations where the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place, Leather still continues to memorialize and pay respects to the firefighters who lost their lives on that tragic day.
“To commemorate 9/11 and remember the fallen firefighters, myself and 40 other Carney Sailors climbed 110 flights of stairs,” said Leather.
110 flights of stairs. The same amount as in each of the World Trade Centers.
“I took an old set of firefighting gear and on it, wrote the 343 names of the firefighters lost on 9/11,” said Leather. “It’s purely symbolic, but I want others to be aware that the lost are not forgotten, and there are still Americans out there who are doing what they can to ensure a tragedy like this never happens again.”
Draped in an ensemble of firefighting gear weighing more than 60 pounds and emblazoned with the names of the 343 fallen firefighters, Leather dons the capstone piece; the firefighting helmet honoring Thomas McCann, a New York City firefighter who perished in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks who is memorialized on Carney’s mess decks. After donning the protective equipment, Leather and 40 other Carney sailors take off from the depths of the ship, climbing their way up to the ship’s bridge, where they then turn around to redo the route for a total of four times, to complete the 110 flights that not all firefighters were able to complete on that fateful day.
“I think the ladder run was a good way to show homage to the 343 fire fighters who passed, and to remember the sacrifices that they made,” said Leather. “I hope that in the future this will become a tradition for Sailors to show their respects and honor the fallen.”
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