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Jewish group pays tribute to Sept. 11 rescue worker

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On the morning of Sept. 11, and the days that followed, all that paramedic Patrick Bahnken could hear was the high-pitched beeping sound coming from firefighters’ oxygen tanks once they ran out of air.

Bahnken, along with the rest of the rescue workers, would search the mountain of debris that used to be the Twin Towers for the sound, only to find the oxygen tanks but not the firefighters.

But beyond the gruesome recollections came the memories of heroism, cooperation, strength and tolerance. That was the message at Monday night’s tribute to the Sept. 11 attacks sponsored by Affiliation Through Learning and Spirituality, or Atlas, a Jewish-outreach program based in Flushing.

The tribute, held at the Holliswood Jewish Center at 86-25 Francis Lewis Blvd. in Holliswood, honored Bahnken as a representative for the Fire Department. City Councilman David Weprin (D-Hollis) was on hand to present Bahnken with a citation from the Council, and Rabbi Raphael Butler spoke about moving on from the anguish of Ground Zero.

Bahnken, president of the local 2507 Uniformed Emergency Medical Technicians and Paramedics, recalled swimming against the stream of traffic, trying to get to the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11.

“I will never forget the terror in the eyes of the people as they were running away from what I was running towards,” Bahnken told the audience of about 100. He described his instinct as a short circuit in his central nervous system that propelled him toward the danger rather than away, but Weprin called it courage.

“We find ourselves surrounded by men and women who through their everyday jobs immerse themselves in valor and heroism,” he said.

Butler saw it as something holy.

“After 9/11 we discovered, beyond our greatest imaginations, a heroism that I would suggest is nothing short of divine,” he said.

As days passed and the rescue efforts turned into a recovery, Bahnken’s mission turned to returning the bodies of those lost to their families, he said. As a Marine Corps veteran, Bahnken learned not to leave any fallen men on the battlefield, and that was how he thought of the World Trade Center — as a battlefield.

“Our desire was to provide closure for all the families,” he said. “For us in the Fire Department, there were fathers digging for sons, sons digging for fathers.”

The cooperation and support from New Yorkers, as well as others across the nation and around the world, in the days after Sept. 11 deeply touched Bahnken, he said.

“People were coming out by the thousands just to give us a pair of dry socks,” he said. “I’ll tell you, three days in, the most valuable thing to me was a toothbrush.”

In moving on from the attacks, Butler urged the audience to focus their support back to the individual by helping one or two people affected.

“What was destroyed that morning was thousands of ‘ones,’” he said. “We don’t bring back thousands, but we can certainly help one.”

Butler also reminded people that life is short, citing the story of Jacob, who was the first person in the Torah, or Old Testament, to live to old age. The gift of old age, Butler said, allowed Jacob to make amends before he died. However, that is not always the case, he said.

“9/11 has taught us all that death can come at any time,” Butler said. “Therefore, our charge must be to repair the breach now.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

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