NEW PORT RICHEY — Twenty years ago, the world witnessed a horrendous tragedy that claimed the lives of nearly 3,000 people. On Sept. 11, 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon pulled together the nation and brought communities together to support the courageous efforts of first responders who raced to the scenes.
New Port Richey resident and retired New York Fire Marshal Pete Fredriksen recalled being at the World Trade Center to assist in recovery efforts when he was only months into his field training with the fire academy. At the time, Fredriksen was assigned to Engine Company 84 at a firehouse in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan.
“I was finishing up making the bunks when I heard the citywide dispatch system go off over the intercom system in the firehouse,” Fredriksen remembered. “It said, ‘Second alarm, Manhattan, plane into a building.’ I didn’t think anything of it, I thought maybe a little Cessna. I came down to the kitchen and I see the TV, all the guys are staring at it, and one of the towers was on fire, smoke pouring out of it.”
With eyes glued to the screen, the firefighters witnessed the second plane crash into the South Tower, at which point Fredriksen said they knew it had to be an attack.
“My company was relocated to another company in Lower Manhattan,” he explained. “Relocation means if something major is going on, they take companies from other areas of the city to fill that firehouse to cover that area for the duration of the event. Prior to that day, the eight or nine weeks I was serving the firehouse, I hadn’t seen any major fires, just a couple of little things, nothing crazy. I didn’t think anything of it.”
What still sticks in Fredriksen’s memory after all these years was the fact that it was a beautiful day up until he arrived closer to the scene of where the towers were burning. The closer the fire truck came to Lower Manhattan, the more smoke and ongoing evacuations Fredriksen could see.
Fredriksen reported to the command post at West Street and Vesey Street with an extra tank of air and an extra rollup of hose in tow. From there, he remembers looking up at the two towers and seeing dots in the sky. Not sure what he was looking at, he asked someone who told him it was people jumping.
“We were maybe half a block from the command post when one of the buildings started coming down,” Fredriksen said. “It was kind of like slow motion, my brain couldn’t register what I was looking at. Everyone was like, ‘Run.’ I dropped all my (stuff) and ran.”
He ran to the safety of a nearby college or high school along with other firemen coughing up dust. At this point, Fredriksen was separated from his crew and feeling a little nervous because he was not yet a graduated fireman. He took off his mask, which another fireman covered in dust took advantage of, grabbing the discarded gear and running off. Fredriksen said he went back outside and described the scene as a war zone.
“Everything’s on fire, cars, papers everywhere, both buildings were gone and it was complete chaos,” he said. “I was able to hook up with the rest of my company. We couldn’t do much that day, it seemed like every minute someone would be yelling there was another attack. We tried to help where we could.”
With mobile phone services down in the city, Fredriksen was unable to tell his family he was safe until he arrived back at the firehouse in upper Manhattan around 3 a.m. Nobody knew if he was still alive, he said.
“It was eerily quiet,” Fredriksen said. “Where I worked in Washington Heights, it’s known as a hopping area. There was always some kind of action. It was dead quiet by the time we got back to the firehouse.”
With barely a suitable amount of time to sleep, Fredriksen returned to work where the crew spent the day at the pile digging to recover bodies. It was the last day he was directly involved with the recovery efforts, as the New York Fire Department shortly declared any firefighters with less than three years of experience couldn’t help.
Fredriksen graduated in November, but the occasion was a somber one. Six of the guys in the academy had been lost on 9/11. It was a small graduating class too, Fredriksen added. Only 100 firefighters, 99 men and one woman, were in the class, whereas previous years had up to 300 or 400 in the academy. They all spent some time together, making it harder when 100 became 94 at graduation.
“I lost my uncle, a battalion chief, he was killed on 9/11,” Fredriksen said. “Everyone knew somebody. It hit close to home.”
After experiencing such an event as a probationary firefighter, and only 28 years old at the time, Fredriksen wanted to continue his path as a firefighter, fulfilling his lifelong dream.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a cop, fireman or in the military. I actually got to be all three,” he said. “That day, it makes you proud to be a fireman, but it makes you feel a little funny. Anytime someone found out I was a fireman, the first thing they’d ask me, ‘Were you at 9/11?’ It was my job, there’s no, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ You follow your orders.”
It hasn’t been until more recently that Fredriksen has been comfortable talking about that day. It’s surreal to reflect on the day, but now he attends the 9-11 Memorial service at Curlew Hills Memory Garden in Palm Harbor.
“Firemen don’t ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’” Fredriksen said. “I would do (my career) all over again. I’m proud to be a part of that.”