FDNY firefighter, Sept. 11 first responder visits Texas Fire Museum, recounts attacks

Beaumont Fire Captain Brad Penison; Steven Olsen, retired FDNY firefighter, and his wife Cathy admire the 9/11 Memorial for first responders of New York City located across the street from the Fire Museum of Texas in Beaumont.

 Steven Olsen, a retired FDNY fire­fighter who was one of the first to respond during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks after American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, vis­ited the Texas Fire Museum in Beau­mont on Wednesday, July 15.

Olsen, 55, and his wife, Cathy, visited Southeast Texas because their daughter Marissa, 18, competed in the United States Baton Twirling Asso­ciation 57th annual National Champi­onship at Ford Park.

Olsen, of Patchogue, N.Y., was a firefighter for more than 20 years. He said he remembers 9/11 like it was yesterday. The retired firefighter described the day in vivid detail, even citing casualty statistics by heart.

“It was 343 firefighters, 23 New York City Police officers, 38 Port Authority police officers, two FBI agents, and three court officers,” Olsen said. “A lot of them I knew because I worked with them.”

Olsen said he and fellow Battalion 1 firefighters were investigating a report­ed gas leak at the corner of Church and Lispenard streets when the unexpect­ed happened.

“It was a beautiful sum­mer day and was my first day back from vacation,” Olsen recounted. “We were just about 10 blocks north of the Trade Center. We saw this plane flying about 100 feet over the six-story buildings on Church Street. I watched it fly right into the North Tower, which was Tower No. 1. That was Flight 11.”

Olsen and the other Batallion 1 fire­fighters were the first to respond, he said.

“A lot of people in the lobby were killed,” he said. “All the windows were blown out in the lobby. … The jet fuel went down and blew up and … blew open the elevator doors, and per­cussion blew out all the glass.”

When he entered the lobby of Tower No. 1, it was a terrifying scene, Olsen said. Many of the building’s inhabitants were on fire.

“One of the fellas — and he ended up surviving — reached out, asking me to help him,” Olsen said. “He was burned so badly that I really couldn’t grab his arms. We didn’t have EMS there at the time, so I didn’t really want to touch him. So I just blessed him and said good luck and went on. … One woman had a very light dress on with these really poofy sleeves. It must have been like nylon or something because it was all just melted to her. It was horrible.”

Olsen said he was able to guide the woman and others into a flow of peo­ple who were self-evacuating.

“We got a lot of people out,” he said.

Olsen and his fellow firefighters lost radio communication, and 30 minutes after he entered the North Tower, the second tower was hit.

“I was ahead of my company with a few other guys on the 21st or 22nd floor … and we heard this tremendous roar,” he said. “The whole building was shaking. I weigh about 380 pounds with all my gear on, and I was thrown around in the building. I asked one of the other guys, ‘What the hell was that?’ Nobody knew.”

Although the firefighters didn’t know it at the time, the impact that shook them was United Airlines Flight 175 crashing into the South Tower next to them.

“We got hit with hurricane-force air – just pure air came at us,” Olsen said. “Once the air was gone, we got hit with heat and then … smoke — black smoke. It turned daylight into pitch-blackness. You could hear wind now because the windows were all broken.”

The next thing Olsen heard was his fire chief calling out mayday.

“Anybody in the North Tower, get out now! Mayday! Mayday! Get out of the building!”

After searching a floor on his way down for a fellow firefighter to no avail, Olsen made his way down to the lobby. The door was stuck, however, and wouldn’t open.

“Basically, I am pushing on debris,” he said.

Olsen said he finally made his way out a window near the fire command center.

“I got just under the north walkway when the building started coming down,” he said. “I took off running to my right. I dove in between a car and a cement wall. That’s where I ended up. Buried but surviving.”

Olsen was awarded the Survivor Medal, given to the 1,392 firefighters who were on the scene at the World Trade Center when the towers fell and lived to tell about it.

Beaumont Fire Captain Brad Pen­ison said it was an honor to have the FDNY firefighter visit the Texas Fire Museum and happily showed Olsen the 9/11 Memorial that Beaumont Fire Department erected in October 2001 following the tragedy.

“There were firefighters here that shed tears because we understood we had just lost brother firefighters and sister firefighters,” Penison said. The tragedy was felt in Beaumont, more than 1,500 miles away.