Chesapeake firefighter and NYC native remembers her personal call to duty on 9/11

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CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) – Faith Gayheart remembers when her father, a retired New York City police officer, would take her to the Twin Towers.

“I remember looking up and just looking at the sky and saying ‘Dad, I’m really dizzy,’ and he said ‘that’s called vertigo. That’s what you get when you look at these massive skyscrapers that are 110 stories tall.'”

Gayheart had grown up in Queens, moved to Chesapeake and followed in her father’s footsteps and became a cop. She remembers the moment she found out about the attacks on the World Trade Center that she marveled at in her youth.

“I desperately wanted to go back to New York and help in any way I could,” she said. “It’s my job to save lives.”

Gayheart was among nearly a dozen officers who went to Ground Zero on their own vacation time. The city sent 45 firefighters. She says the connection between the two cities is filled with memories and loss.

When Gayheart arrived there, it wasn’t the hometown she had left. She was trudging through the remains of one of the world’s iconic landmarks, reduced to scrap metal, rubble and dust. She and the other Chesapeake police officers were working with an officer from Manhattan’s 6th Precinct.

“She said to all of us ‘Look at your boots’, and we all looked down and they were covered in ash. And she said ‘Your boots now have the DNA of [everyone who was killed].’ And that was a stunning, stunning reality,” Gayheart recalled.

Gayheart says it looked like a war zone, like a bomb had gone off, and the southern end of Manhattan that she knew was beyond recognition. For her, it was an attack on the senses in another way, too.

“There was a smell that I will never forget. The smell of death, but also destruction,” she said.

In the years since, Gayheart says a Chesapeake police officer who went there has had a heart transplant, and two Chesapeake firefighters died in their 30s or 40s after being diagnosed with cancer. Exposure to Ground Zero was believed to be a factor in each case.

“They’re gone because they felt the need to go give service and do what they could to help out,” Gayheart said. “In the city that I love, the city that I grew up in, the city that’s my everything.”

One story of survival hit especially close to home. Port Authority Police Officer John McLoughlin was trapped in the wreckage for nearly 24 hours until he was rescued with a fellow officer. Gayheart was McLoughlin’s neighbor when she was growing up in Queens. Nicolas Cage portrayed McLoughlin in the movie “World Trade Center.”

In the years since 9/11, Gayheart switched from Chesapeake police officer to Chesapeake firefighter. A beam from the World Trade Center lets visitors at Chesapeake City Park know of the legacy of local first responders.

“It’s hard for me to see it. It’s a piece of my home that should not be here. That piece of my home should still be at home. It was very personal. The towers — I referred to them as our pillars of strength, and they’re gone.”

You might think that Gayheart would shove the images and memories back into some distant recess of her psyche, but that’s not the case. She regularly revisits the most incredible, most deadly, and most life-changing catastrophe she has ever confronted.

She documented the progress of the new One World Trade Center, and returns to the Ground Zero memorial every year when she visits New York City.

“A lot of people don’t realize this, but when you read the names, there’s a lot of women and it says ‘with child.’ And so many women were pregnant,” she said.

And she is passing along the legacy of 9/11 to those who are too young to remember, or weren’t even born yet.

“Like clockwork, every August, my husband and I, we start pulling out the documentaries, watching them, and I bring them to the fire station and I tell the younger guys about it,” she said.

New York City made pieces of the towers available to the various cities that helped in the recovery.

Chesapeake also has items relating to the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania — the sites of the other 9/11 attacks — at the Chesapeake Visitors Center.

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