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Local Ground Zero hero reflects on 20th anniversary of 9/11

Published: Sep. 9, 2021 at 10:48 PM CDT
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BYRON, Ill. (WIFR) - Everyone old enough remembers exactly where they were on 9/11. One Byron man’s memory of the attacks on the twin towers includes helping in New York from September 12-17. Mike Garrigan talked to this Ground Zero hero just days before the 20th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack in human history.

Over the last 23 years, Aurora Battalion Chief Randy Leek has commuted from his home in Byron thousands of times. But one trip home from work on September 11, 2001 stood out more than all the rest.

“During mid-trip from Aurora to Byron I heard on the radio that one of the towers has been hit,” said Leek.

Leek says initially there was shock.

“I was in disbelief that there would be that kind of evil in people that would go this far.”

But the focus quickly turned to how he can help.

“That’s the nature of what we do. We run towards danger to help others.”

He was one of six from the Aurora Fire Department with technical rescue training chosen to head to Ground Zero.

“We had 200 plus guys at the time that time and 200 of them would’ve answered the call in a minute,” said Leek.

Leek took the first leg of the drive from Illinois to Manhattan but as he crossed the state line into Michigan, Leek got pulled over.

“I said we’re kind of on a mission and I explained to him and he says ‘I just want to tell you in my state I’ve already radioed ahead he said get their fellas.’ It’s the only time in my life I’ll probably get caught going 82 miles per hour in a 65 mile per hour zone and the last thing the officer says was ‘go along and god bless you.’”

When the six aurora firefighters finally reached New York, Leek says the only way to describe the atmosphere was surreal.

“The closer we got to Ground Zero it was just a September snowstorm. Just the amount of dust that was in the air. It was so thick you could cut the air with a knife.”

Leek and his Aurora crew worked the bucket brigade for several days.

“We worked anywhere from 8 to 12 hours shifts on the pile.”

A stressful time that was eased by the kindness of New Yorkers.

‘You saw those restaurants that were closed for business but the owners and employees came out and cooked for and presented that food to the rescue workers. I thought you know, they didn’t have to do that but once again everyone in the country, and a lot of the people in the world wanted to be like ‘what can I do to help?’”

Perhaps the most memorable act of kindness for Leek was when an older lady came up and handed him a pin of an angel with a very small piece of glass in it.

“I had no idea until I got home later that inside that glass, if you held it up to your eye, it had an inscription in it.

“The vision of an angel flying through the air can make you smile and take away your fears. So keep your eyes open and your heart too for you never know when angels will be passing through.”

“I never saw her again on the street it was just like she was there and she was gone. It’s like you never know when you’re entertaining angels unaware,” said Leek.

Leek wants to make sure the newer fire recruits are aware, many of them too young to remember much about 9/11. The most import message: Be prepared for anything.

“There’s a certain amount of pride that goes with this and with the fire service you are going to be called on to do extraordinary things in extraordinary times. Of course as far as humility in the fire service, it’s like no that’s our job. I don’t know if that’s an abnormal psych but it’s just something that we do I can’t imagine doing anything else,” said Leek.

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