In honor of our annual Volunteer Week at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum, we are publishing firsthand accounts from a father and son who volunteer at the Museum. Bill Spade spent his career working to protect and support New Yorkers. He served two years in the New York City Police Department before joining the New York City Fire Department in 1985. By 1991, Spade’s hard work and determination earned him a spot on Staten Island's elite Rescue 5, a unit of the Special Operations Command. His son John Spade is a volunteer docent and a graduate of the Museum’s ambassador program.
Survivors guilt is handled by its victims in many ways. Personally, I knew I had helped save many lives on September 11 and went through my own struggle to survive that day. As the second tower was collapsing around me, my only thoughts were of my wife, Cynthia, my 6-year-old son Billy, and my 2-month-old son John. Returning home to them three days later is something I thought would never happen. As the only survivor of the 12 men who responded from my company, Rescue 5, I often questioned why I had survived.
But as a retired firefighter who lost his firefighter son that day told me, “Not many people can tell the story from what it was like inside the towers that day, and in your story, you can bring up so many names of people that you came across that day, that are no longer with us anymore.”
“It’s because of the work and volunteering you do to make sure we ‘never forget’ the events of that day,” said a 9/11 widow to me in the wake of the attacks.
When the Museum was preparing to open and beginning to train docents, I felt honored to have been selected. What better venue to meet people from all over and assist in educating the public on 9/11. The magnificent people I’ve met through the docent program and my fellow docents from Friday’s finest inspire me every day.
Since my boys were young I’ve always told them in an age-appropriate manner what 9/11 was all about. While my older son Billy is currently pursuing his degree in nursing and looking forward to joining the FDNY, my son John has taken a strong interest in learning about the history of 9/11. He studied and has attended many lectures on the subject through the Museum’s ambassador program and is also a recent graduate from the latest docent class.
After arriving home from his final class, he said, “Dad, wouldn’t it be great if you and I could work one shift together?” It was something that I had been thinking as well.
One recent Friday, we did get to volunteer together and stood near each other in center passage. John was telling the story of Jan Demczur and the elevator motor while I was telling the story of Captain Patrick “Paddy” Brown and Ladder 3. I couldn’t have been any prouder. It certainly affirmed why I had survived that dreadful day.
As far back as my memory serves me, I can recall traveling into the city with my dad and clinging bashfully at his side while he led groups of tourists around Ground Zero.
At the end of the tour, people would swarm around me, eager to tell me, “Your father is a hero!” From this very young age, I remember my dad always teaching me lessons about life. A lot of my dad’s lessons were ingrained in his 9/11 story, and his post-9/11 desire to live every day to the fullest.
One of the lessons he instilled in me most was his commitment to remembrance. My dad’s devotion to telling the story of 9/11 didn't begin or end on the anniversary. He started telling the story of that day through his publication in the Staten Island Advance on his first day out of the hospital, and he hasn’t slowed down since.
As most sons are, I was always eager to follow in my dad’s footsteps. I would tell teachers about my family’s involvement with 9/11 and urge them to teach a lesson on the attacks every September. As I got older, my platform expanded, and I was able to make a more serious change. In my sophomore year, I joined the Museum’s ambassador program.
Along with seven other high school students, I studied under the direction of Museum staff and learned the story of that day from public speakers who had backgrounds like my dad.
Upon graduation, I was armed with the skills necessary to teach Museum visitors and children who came to participate in Activity Stations in Classroom C. I continued my work at the Museum throughout my junior year as a senior ambassador. In my senior year of high school, I enrolled in the 2018–2019 docent program. I was once again sitting in the Museum classrooms, expanding my breadth of knowledge and ability to educate the public. Outside of the Museum, I wrote a 10-page research paper on the importance of educating students on 9/11, proposing a policy to mandate lessons of the sort. As I take my steps toward choosing a college, I am gearing my course work toward a career in telling the story of 9/11.
Though my volunteering stemmed from a desire to follow in my dad's footsteps, I’ve adopted my own sense of responsibility for telling the story of that day. As I was just two months old at the time, I have a unique ability to see the story from the perspective of someone who has no recollection of that day, and as someone who was a family member of a survivor. I will never be able to express how fortunate I am to have my father with me to this day, but every day I work at the Museum I know I am slowly expressing my gratitude by letting the stories of those who perished at the site live on.
To this day, people constantly remind me that my dad is a hero. Proudly, I nod in agreement. Yet I don’t only think of my dad as a hero because of what he did on 9/11. I think of him as a hero because of the thousands of positive things he's done because of lessons he learned that day.
My dedication to telling the story of 9/11 can be summarized through my understanding of Virgil’s quote. The first time I read Virgil’s quote in Memorial Hall, I fell in love with the ability of words to transcend the boundaries of language and time. The truth of his words still rings in distant parts of the world. When people said “Never Forget” in the wake of 9/11, they weren’t simply saying that the events will never be forgotten, they were promising to make it their responsibility that these events aren’t forgotten.
Similarly, Virgil’s quote now serves as a call to action. It is a reminder to everyone who enters the Museum that we must not forget the loved ones lost on that day. Before starting my volunteer shift every week, I walk by the quote and am reminded why I volunteer.
Learn more about volunteer opportunities at the 9/11 Memorial & Museum.
Beginning on September 11, 2021, Bill and John Spade will share their stories, along with four other speakers, as part of this year’s sixth annual Anniversary in the Schools webinar. Register for this free program here.
The webinar is made possible thanks to generous support from The New York Life Foundation.
By 9/11 Memorial Staff