Eighteen years have passed since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when thousands were killed as hijacked airliners crashed into the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Still, there are moments today when retired New York firefighter Frank Pizarro feels as numb as he did that morning, when he responded to the World Trade Center.
“You know in the movies when there’s an explosion and then all of a sudden everything goes quiet?” Pizarro, now a Las Vegas resident, said Wednesday morning outside Las Vegas Fire Department Station 5, near Hinson Street and Charleston Boulevard. “And then the character kind of stands there frozen in place, but all around them they see people running around and stuff. That’s how it feels.”
Pizarro, along with members of the community and other firefighters and Las Vegas police officers, gathered outside Station 5 to honor 9/11 victims in a longtime fire service tradition known as tolling the bells.
At 6:50 a.m., the approximate time that the South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, Las Vegas firefighter Tim Szymanski rang a bell outside the station 15 times. The tradition dates back to the era before radio communications when fire alarm boxes were assigned numbers — much like an address — and bells at fire stations would ring that number when the alarm was triggered. If a firefighter was killed in the line of duty, fire dispatch would ring the bell in sets of five, three times, to alert other firefighters.
As Szymanski rang the bell, an American flag that once flew over the World Trade Center was hoisted to half-staff on a flagpole. The flag was given to the city of Las Vegas in 2004.
Afterward, Pizarro, who has been singing since he was 6, belted out the National Anthem. He has sung the anthem during the Fire Department’s annual 9/11 tribute since at least 2017, when he moved to the valley.
“It’s therapeutic, first of all,” he said. “But it’s an honor, always, to be recognized as a first responder.”
Pizarro said he was at the base of the World Trade Center searching for survivors when the second tower began to crumble. He and his comrades retreated into a parking garage, saving their lives.
“So we made it through the dirt and the dust, the smoke, past all the people running, and we started to operate,” he said.
Pizarro spent the next four months searching through the rubble.
As Pizarro’s voice filled the air Wednesday morning, Las Vegas resident Tina Torres, donning an American Flag shirt, wept.
Torres, a former IBM employee, said she lost two colleagues in the attacks. The company had offices in one of the towers in New York City.
At the time, Torres was in Brazil for work, but the weight of the attacks truly set in a week later, she said, when she was returning home.
Torres said she was in awe of the security crackdowns she saw at the airport. It was a glimpse of life after 9/11, she said.
“The worst part is the world seems like it’s getting worse,” Torres, crying, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal after the tribute had concluded.
Pizarro, on the other hand, reflected on the almost two decades since the attacks and said, “I just hope that people learn from it, that people realize tomorrow’s not promised and freedom is not free. If you could spend each day helping someone in some kind of way, it would make the world a little better.”
Palo Verde High School also held its annual remembrance ceremony on the school’s soccer field. Among the thousands killed that day was Palo Verde foreign language teacher Barbara Edwards, a passenger on American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon.