On Sept. 10, 2001, New York City firefighter David Morkal used some of his vacation time to drive 90 minutes outside of the city and help his father-in-law replace a sliding glass door.
He stayed the night and the next morning they went to a lumberyard. Morkal, a Bennetts Switch native and Maconaquah graduate, wore his NYC firefighter shirt.
An employee at the lumberyard told him a small plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. You’ll probably have to go back to work, the man said.
New York City did not recall off-duty firefighters in 1993 after the World Trade Center bombing. Morkal did not expect he would be needed for a small plane crash.
And then he returned to his car and turned on the radio.
“My 1990 Honda Civic, I think it needed a new clutch that day from trying to get back into the city,” Morkal recalled.
That night Morkal stood in a layer of dust 6 inches deep. Dirty gray clouds puffed up from the ground with each step. He and his fellow firefighters saw smoke escaping from cracks in a mountain of rubble, so they began clearing away debris to investigate.
They found a fire engine.
“What you saw on the news was in a 19-inch TV at the time,” he said. “You could always look away and check your reality. That didn’t exist for us when we were down there. It was 360 degrees. There was no looking away to get reconnected to reality.”
Twenty years later, Morkal is now a New York Fire Department battalion chief. On Sept. 24-26, he will be on hand at Haven’s Auditorium to talk to audiences following performances of the 9/11 themed play, “The Guys”. The play kicks off the Kokomo Civic Theatre’s 2021-22 season.
It was Morkal who suggested the play to KCT director Beth Metcalf, his longtime friend from the University of Evansville. They met in the college’s theatre program.
“I was the theater geek at Maconaquah High School,” he said.
Morkal was on the Maconaquah wrestling team when, during his sophomore year, the team took a break and Morkal walked into the school auditorium. Auditions for the school play were in progress.
If you are here, you are auditioning, said the drama teacher.
So Morkal auditioned. He was given four small parts and discovered he loved performing.
“I found a home” in theater, he said.
He earned a masters at the University of Georgia and taught several years at Evansville and the University of Western Michigan before moving to New York in 1985, where he worked in a theater shop designing scenery.
In 1990 he became a firefighter, but he still enjoys seeing theater to this day.
He was in the audience during “The Guys” debut run at the Flea Theater.
“I think the play really talks about the loss and the brother and sisterhood of the fire service. Certainly anyone in the fire service understands it, but I don’t know if everyone understands how close we are as a family.”
When he last visited the area in April, he found that family at the Kokomo and Grissom Fire Departments when he stopped and talked to the firefighters about fire service, 9/11 and leadership.
“These are people who are willing to put their lives on the line for a complete stranger,” Morkal said of the local fire crews. “It doesn’t matter to them what your social economic status is or what your political beliefs are. They just know that when you are in a jam and your life is in danger, they are willing to risk their lives to save you.”
He said that even though New York City has the largest fire department in the country with some 10,000 firefighters, fires in New York are no hotter than what the Kokomo department experiences.
“The KFD puts their lives at risk in just the same way as the firefighters in New York City do,” he said. And with fewer resources as well.
It’s not new for Morkal to share his story with others. Just this month he spoke to New Zealanders on the U.S. eve of 9/11.
”They asked me, ‘What do you want people to remember about Sept. 11?’ I said, ‘I think we want to remember the loss, the impact and how it transitioned our world, but I also want us to remember how we came together as a country and as a world afterwards,’” he said.
He hopes his talks bring some reality of the event that many people witnessed on TV or weren’t even alive to experience yet. Though he doesn’t want his own story to be confused with those of the firefighters who were on the scene at the beginning of the World Trade Center attack.
“But this is my story and I hope I can convey a sense of resilience and a sense of recovery, about where we have been and where we are going,” he said.
Where the country heads 20 years after 9/11 is back to a position of unity, he hopes.
“The support and the coming together [of 9/11] is possible, but we have to figure out how we can do that without a tragedy,” he said.
Show times for “The Guys” are 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, with a matinee on Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets at $15.
Tickets can be purchased at https://www.kokomocivictheatre.org/ Local nonprofits host volunteer info session
Following a short presentation there will be time to talk with each nonprofit, asks questions and sign up as a volunteer.