Cecil “Buddy” Martinette has spent more than 40 years around fire stations. I would say he’s worked for more than 40 years in fire service, but Martinette says it’s not that way.
“I’ve never had a job,’ the current chief of the Wilmington Fire Department says. “Never had a job. I’ve always had this “gig” in the fire service and rescue business. It’s been a blessing and it’s been a gift.”
Martinette’s career began in Virginia Beach, where he learned the job and later became part of the “VA Task Force 2: Urban Search and Rescue Team” under the authority of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The 21-team federal task force responds when needed to disaster scenes across the United States. Martinette stayed on the team after moving in 2000 to become Fire Chief in Lynchburg, Virginia. Those duties called on September 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 and crashed it into the Pentagon.
“My pager went off before the second tower fell,” Martinette remembers. “As a matter of fact, my wife will tell you that it was a strange call she got that day about getting my stuff out of the attic. I had all my bags pre-packed and ready for deployment. My training chief in Lynchburg actually drove me to the Pentagon. I think I was there around 3:30 or so in the afternoon.”
Much of the first half of our conversation dealt with the situation unfolding at the Pentagon when Martinette arrived, and what his duties were as part of the response team.
“The building was not safe to enter,” he says about the structure of the building surrounding the crashed jetliner. “First of all, people don’t realize there was a heck of a fire in that building. Arlington (VA firefighters) and Alexandria (VA firefighters) and those guys, they did an amazing job putting that building out so that we could even get in there. It was a very difficult rescue operation. It required a lot of shoring (up the building) before we could get in there. My job was to develop the rescue plan. How are we going to basically get from where we are right now to where everybody is recovered, the evidence is recovered in the building, and the building is made safe.”
Martinette goes in-depth about the complications of securing the structure so teams could get inside the Pentagon. He paints images of the concussion from the impact and explosion killing workers sitting at their desks. He walked through the halls of the building, looked at it from many different angles, ultimately spending 11 days at the site. As Martinette and hundreds of other firefighters and task force members executed the operation, they began to get word of the situation from Ground Zero in New York City. Buddy had trained alongside many members of the NYFD as part of VA-TF2, and it’s at this point in our conversation he begins to show emotion as he recalls the memory.
“What I do remember is the calls over the subsequent hours where we would find out that friends of ours had passed away, and they (rescue teams) had recovered some of them,” Martinette says with a quivering lip, showing the subject is still difficult to talk about. “It just got to be quite difficult over, you know, I was there eleven days at the Pentagon. Over three and four days you would hear that Chris didn’t make it, Ray didn’t make it, Brian didn’t make it. of course, almost nobody (NYC firefighters) made it, as it turns out.”
Martinette says the first two days of work at the Pentagon were similar to another operation. He says leaders were not sure the damaged part of the building would remain standing, much like the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City that was torn apart by a truck bomb on April 19, 1995. Martinette and all National Urban Search and Rescue Team members responded to that scene as well. He calls it their first “major response” as a team. Our conversation turned to that incident at 18:10 of the podcast.
“We approached it (the building) from the non-damaged side,” Martinette says about getting his first look at the structure. “If you remember, the face of that building had all fallen. When you come up from the other side, it wasn’t until you’d come around and stood there, that you saw the enormity of that collapse situation. That was a situation where people were still being rescued. We didn’t rescue anybody, but we recovered a lot of people. Just like the Pentagon, we had some rescuers who were phenomenally courageous that night.”
Buddy Martinette tells an amusing story when you ask how he got involved in the world of firefighting. He admits to being “not a very good kid, who wanted to surf and goof around” growing up in Virginia Beach. As a 15-year-old, Martinette walked out of Princess Anne High School one day eating an ice cream sandwich. He subsequently dropped the sandwich wrapper on the ground, starting a series of events that led to Buddy Martinette’s introduction to the fire service. It all begins at 21:45 of the podcast.
“Larry Shackleford, the assistant principal, came running out of there like his hair was on fire,” Martinette says about the man who had punished and suspended him several times. “He grabbed me and hauled me back into the building. One thing I did enjoy in high school was playing sports. He wouldn’t let me play sports anymore. He said ‘nope, you’re going to do community service.”
That same day, while walking home and thinking about what types of community service he could perform, Martinette walked by Thalia 7 Fire Station, went inside, and came across three members of the department, Paul, Skip and Billy.
“I asked them, could I wash the trucks or something to get this community service thing off,” Martinette recalls. “I remember Billy, who was the Chief at the time saying ‘we don’t have anything like that for you to do here. But you can be a junior volunteer if you’re 16’. I told them ‘I’m only 15’. I said ‘well look, can I just wash or sweep the floors?’ He goes ‘look, I told you, we don’t have anything like that for you to do around here. But you can be a junior volunteer if you’re 16’. I remember going ‘well, I’m only 15’. Finally, I realized I was 16. It clicked in. That started a magical journey for me.”
Martinette worked in fire service for Virginia Beach, Lynchburg and Hanover County (Virginia) before becoming Wilmington’s Fire Chief in 2008. “I could not be more blessed,” he says about the department of more than 200 men and women. “This is one of the best fire departments in the country. I would stack these men and women up against anybody. I give credit to our citizens. They don’t balk at supporting the fire department, and (city) council has been very supportive of what it is we’re doing.”
Buddy Martinette says he doesn’t talk much about 9-11 any longer, which makes this conversation with him special. He has backed away from speaking at ceremonies to mark the incident, instead choosing to let other officers perform those duties. Martinette says his mentor, Ray Downey, was three days from retirement when he died trying to save lives in the World Trade Center Towers.
“I love the fact that we still remember that day,” he says. “I hate that we still remember that day, because it brings back a lot of tough memories for me. But it’s good that we still do that. I think we have to reflect on, especially with all of the hate going on in the world right now, you do have people who do jobs, whether police officers or firefighters, who are willing to risk their lives for people they don’t even know.”
I hope you enjoy the podcast conversation with Buddy Martinette. It will give you a closer look at what happened following two of the darkest days this country has ever seen, and the work done to help those communities, and this country, begin the road to recovery.
You can listen to the entire interview with Buddy Martinette on the free “1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast:
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