PITTSBORO — He could see it in their eyes.
“They knew that they were going up those steps to try and beat a fire that they couldn’t beat,” said Joe Dittmar. “They knew that they were going up those steps to try and save lives that they couldn’t save.
“They knew that they were marching into the bowels of hell, and they knew they were going up and knew that they were never, never coming back.”
Dittmar, who lives in Chatham County, spoke Friday afternoon about the first responders, the firefighters, the EMTs, the police officers and the paramedics who were climbing the stairs of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
Dittmar, who lived and worked in Illinois at the time, was attending a meeting of insurance executives on the 105th floor of Tower No. 2 that day when terrorists flew airliners into the Twin Towers. Although he and the others at the meeting weren’t sure what was going on, he knew he had better get out.
As he began to walk down the endless flights of stairs he saw rescuers heading up the steps.
“We began to pass by them at the 35th floor level,” Dittmar said. “Just the look in their eyes, no words, just the look in their eyes told the story. They knew.”
Dittmar was one of seven in a group of 54 who were attending that meeting who survived.
On Friday, he spoke at the groundbreaking of the Chatham County 9-11 First Responders Memorial, which will honor all of the first responders who died that day or have since died in the service to their own communities.
The memorial, which will be on U.S. 15-501 next to the Chatham County Courthouse, will feature a beam from one of the towers that will be installed in the ground and tilted 9 degrees and 11 minutes facing directly toward Ground Zero in New York City.
About 100 people attended the ceremony, which was marked by an honor guard, prayers, a moment of silence, Taps and the ringing of the bell, which marks the death of fallen firefighters.
The idea for the memorial in Chatham County came from EMT Joe Fraser after he read an article about a Florida Boy Scout who suggested to his community that it could build a memorial there using a beam from the World Trade Center.
Fraser wrote a letter to New York City authorities asking if Chatham County could receive a beam, and in March 2011 he got a letter from a federal judge saying Chatham County had been awarded one of the beams.
Jody Allen, a firefighter in Goldston, had a big rig, and he along with a couple of others, drove to New York City and hauled the 19-foot-long, 12,000 pound beam home.
Fraser and Allen, who are on the board of directors of the Chatham County 9-11 First Responders Memorial Foundation, are raising money and hoping the beam can be installed within the next couple of months.
So far, a number of companies, including Corley Redfoot Architects, which designed the memorial, and Foushee Grading of Pittsboro, have donated their time and work to the memorial.
The first phase of the memorial will be the erection of the beam. Once that’s completed, the foundation plans to raise money to build a picnic shelter, put in sidewalks and add landscaping and other features around the memorial.
The foundation is selling Challenge Coins for $15 each to raise money for the memorial. For more information, go to on.fb.me/1jh9PSh.