“The events of 9/11 forever shifted the direction and the focus of my life:” an interview with firefighter Matt Lay

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Story and photos by
Tami Molinaro

Yesterday was the 20th anniversary of one of the worst events our nation has ever faced: the day terrorists hijacked planes and crashed them into the Twin Towers in New York, The Pentagon and other destinations. I was in a car, driving to work, when the first tower was struck, but I watched in horror as the second one was struck over the television.

Today’s College Freshmen have no memory of this event because they were just babies when it happened. There’s an entire generation of people who were only told of this event but have no ties to it; this blows my mind because the events of that day will be stuck in my mind for as long as I will live.  For some people, it changed the course of events in the rest of their lives!

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I started this project as a way to honor our everyday heroes and to highlight the First Responders who gave their all on 9/11. Our First Responders are very much esteemed in my eyes for their actions that fateful day and for all of the brave situations they’ve had to face since.

I had intended to photograph a Police Officer, an EMT and a Fireman with a 9/11 story to display at the Sapulpa Arts Route 66 Art Show & Sale on September 11th (today), but I was only able to photograph one person before the deadline. It is my hope to continue this series over the next couple of months to recognize more of our Everyday Heros. Stay tuned for more in this series!

My first participant is Matt Lay. I met Matt at church and he was overwhelmingly referred to me for this project because he is not only a Fire Chief for a house in Tulsa but a military man as well. His entire life changed after 9/11/01. I was able to chat with him about how it changed his life.

Matt Lay’s entire life was changed on 9/11.

Tami: What is your profession?

Matt: Firefighter.

Tami: Where were you on September 11th, 2001?

Matt: I was in Stillwater at Oklahoma State University.

Tami: What was your age or profession then?

Matt: I was a 19-year-old college student and wrestler. 

Tami: How did the events of 9/11 affect your life & your career?

Matt:  The events of 9/11 forever shifted the direction and the focus of my life. After seeing the sacrifice of firefighters on that day, followed by the courage of our military deploying into harm’s way around the world, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I enlisted in the Army the next year. My service took me overseas to Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom as well as on a domestic mission to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. I was able to use my GI Bill to become an EMT and get hired on the Tulsa Fire Department where my great Uncle WI Evans had retired as a Captain with over 30 years of service to the community. That was 17 years and thousands of emergencies, tornados, floods, and fires ago. In the tragic aftermath of 9/11, I discovered my calling. The greatest job in the world is where I get to help and serve others each and every day.

Tami: What would you like people to know?

Matt: The life of a firefighter is built around service, brotherhood, loyalty, and courage.  Upon these pillars, generation after generation of American Firefighters will rise to meet the challenges of the day.  From terrorist attacks and natural disasters to an opioid crisis and COVID-19, the men and women of this proud profession stand ready to respond when we need them most.  Always prepared to lay down their lives to save their fellow man (John 15:13).

This photo won First Place in the 2021 Route 66 Art Show.