WV Press InSight Videos

Berkeley County man recalls Pentagon on 9/11

Journal photo by Ron Agnir Gene Hunley was one of the many firefighters that responded to the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Now retired, he holds and cherishes two items he received while working during the attack — a heavy duty flashlight and a small Gideon Bible.
Journal photo by Ron Agnir
Gene Hunley was one of the many firefighters that responded to the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Now retired, he holds and cherishes two items he received while working during the attack — a heavy duty flashlight and a small Gideon Bible.

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Some might say being a firefighter has cost him a lot, but Gene Hunley would disagree.

Even after being diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer, which doctors attributed to his 34 years of firefighting – including helping battle fires and hot spots at the Pentagon on 9/11 after terrorists crashed American Airlines Flight 77 into it – he doesn’t have any regrets about his career.

It’s all about public service for Hunley, whose litmus test for success is knowing he’s given his all working alongside fellow firefighters – especially coworkers at the Dulles Fire Department, whom he affectionately refers to as his brothers and sisters – no matter what the situation.

That was also true for other first responders at the Pentagon, who arrived to find a “virtual fireball” had gone through a part of the building and killed 125 workers, he said.

Hunley, who grew up in rural south Berkeley County and still lives there, is no stranger to emergencies or going the extra mile. He and another paramedic helped after a mother delivered her baby on board a plane after it left Dulles International, a truly special delivery that was dubbed “baby Dulles,” Hunley said with a chuckle.

But for the most part, he said, it’s about simply doing the job he’s been trained to do.

“I’m not just trying to sound macho, but this is my job and the training just takes over. It really is true that when people are running out of a burning building, we run in – and that’s the way we want it,” he said, adding that emotions usually don’t surface until later.

For example, while Hunley didn’t see any real changes after his 9/11 experiences, his wife later said he’d gotten even closer to family members and at times seemed a little more tentative.

There were some scary times, especially when evacuation tones sounded signaling the possibility of another attack, said Hunley, who was on the building’s roof during what turned out to be a false alarm that sent everyone scrambling to get down as quickly as possible.

“At that time, two F-16 fighters came across us and they were low enough that I could see their armaments. It was clear they were going out to kill something if necessary,” he said.

Other memories are more pleasant, including the generosity of companies who provided needed equipment free of charge to those on the scene, Hunley said, adding that some simply showed up with food for the tired emergency workers.

“A tractor-trailer of fire boots and boxes of gloves would just show up, as well as thermal imaging devices, which are pretty expensive. But the companies just wanted us to have everything we needed and they really stepped up to the plate,” he said.

He still carries a flashlight from there – one that he used until his retirement 18 months ago – and treasures a Bible given to him by a chaplain after first arriving on the scene.

“Looking back it really was like being in a war zone, but you don’t have time for doubt or fear because your job is to save lives and property. Anything else gets in the way,” Hunley said.

He said faith and having the right attitude can do wonders in even the worst of times, including the days after being diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer (with lymph node involvement) when local doctors recommended a series of treatment that included having his tongue removed.

In the end, Hunley was successfully treated at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Philadelphia, which he describes as “truly a miracle place and Christian-based hospital where patients are the top concern.”

Ironically, he learned about CTCA from his former fire captain, whose wife had been treated there. Less than a week after his first call, Hunley was being scheduled for a three-day checkup and immediately knew he wanted to continue his care there.

“Everyone touches and hugs up there. It’s been a wonderful, hard battle since then,” he said.

Now in remission, Hunley is enjoying life – including the recent birth of his granddaughter, having time to spend with his horses and helping other Martinsburg High School alumni plan a 40th reunion for later this month.

While he won’t be dwelling on the devastation of 9/11 today, he will remember the victims who died in Arlington, as well as New York and Pennsylvania.

“I don’t want anyone to think that I was special, because there were a lot of us just doing our jobs that day,” Hunley said.

To read more from The Journal, subscribe here.

Comments are closed.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter