HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- When NASCAR visits Richmond Raceway, most people just see the cars and drivers and never notice the people who work behind the scenes to make the race work. For almost all of his 28 years with the Henrico Fire Department, Jimmy Hughes pulled duty at Richmond Raceway serving in all different capacities but never quite saw much action.
"People think that we get to see all of the race when we're out here working but we don't," Hughes said. "Especially if you're in one of the turn trucks in the corners that have to respond out on the track. You only have that little window of what's going on."
"A lot of our fire team here at the raceway goes unnoticed, which is OK," Richmond Raceway President Dennis Bickmeier said. "But, they're here keeping fans safe, keeping competitors safe. So many of them come in and work our race weekends."
When this year's NASCAR schedule came out, Bickmeier learned quickly that the 20th anniversary of 9/11 would fall on his race weekend and his team went to work.
"What can we do that day? How do we honor and remember that day?" Bickmeier said. "And we've stuck to those two words: honor and remember."
As part of the pre-race festivities, a group of first responders and military members will give the command for the drivers to start their engines.
Jimmy Hughes will be a part of that group, in part because of his service not only to the track but to the nation.
"After the second one hit, it was not an accident. Then we started getting pages about the Pentagon. So we knew it was pretty bad," Hughes recalled about 9/11.
Hughes was going to play golf with friends that day, but that all changed quickly.
By Friday of that week, he was on a train with a group of firefighters from Virginia headed to Manhattan to help out in any way they could. What they saw when they got to the city changed them forever.
"It was devastating. Going down to the site, there were people giving us pictures of their family members, trying to help them out as we got there," he said.
Hughes and his team were in charge of certain logistics and escorting different clergy down to Ground Zero and the temporary morgues that had been set up in the aftermath and cleanup.
"We actually had some clergy members that, once we got them to the site, they couldn't stay. We had to bring them back," he said. "Firefighters and people that actually do the job are a different breed. Any time they actually found any type of body part, everyone would stop, and they would bring it out and do a ceremony for anything that they found at the site."
Hughes spent three months in New York working at Ground Zero.
"They sent me home to get away from it. When I got home, my wife sent me back," Hughes said. "She said, 'you've gotta go.' Why? I wasn't happy not being there. I wanted to be there to help."
His wife used a week of her vacation to come to New York as well to help in the effort. Henrico gave him as much time away as he needed to work at the site.
As much devastation and sadness, as he saw, Hughes was grateful for the chance to do something to help.
"We knew going into it that it was going to be devastating and that we had lost a lot of brothers and sisters," he said. "There were some that struggled because they were off that day and did not get to be at the towers when they fell. So there was some remorse with them also."
Hughes has not returned to New York in the 20 years since. He does not know if he will ever go back.
"That's questionable," he said. "Too many memories for me. I know a lot of people won't understand that. It's difficult to remember what it was then and what it is today."
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