SUGAR GROVE – DeKalb firefighter Pat Eriksen said it “just blows my mind that it’s been 20 years” since terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York City and his firefighter cousin died in the line of duty Sept. 11, 2001.
Eriksen, 47, who lives in Sugar Grove and at the time worked as a firefighter for the North Aurora Fire Department, said he remembers watching the day’s events unfold from the firehouse near Fox River.
“And we just sat there and watched everything the whole time,” Eriksen said.
Eriksen, whose family on his dad’s side resides in the Big Apple, comes from a firefighting family. His 33-year-old cousin, New York City firefighter John Joseph Florio, responded to the North tower, the first to be attacked, on Engine 214 out of North Brooklyn firehouse that day. That morning, hijackers used commercial planes as missiles and crashed into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field. The attacks killed nearly 3,000 people and toppled the trade center’s 110-story twin towers.
Despite attempts to reach Florio by phone, Eriksen’s family didn’t hear from him for days. They’d soon learn that the Brooklyn firefighter died during the tower’s collapse, crushed to death attempting to help those inside.
“He went in and they found him maybe, I want to say, four or five days later,” Eriksen said.
As the nation watched the twin towers crumble, Eriksen said he knew his firefighter relatives would be called to the scene.
“So I kept making phone call after phone call,” Eriksen said. “And I know majority of my family all lives in Long Island, so they’re not necessarily near Manhattan, but I know a lot of them work and commute down to the city. So I was making sure everybody was OK.”
Eriksen said he remembers his uncle, Florio’s father, talking about how deceased first responders had to be identified by their DNA, from “a finger, or a hand or a foot.” He said that’s why it meant a lot to his family that Florio’s body was found “mostly intact.”
“So they were able to give him a pretty decent funeral,” Eriksen said.
Years later while in New York, Eriksen said he and his family visited the Ten House, the FDNY firehouse across from ground zero, to exchange shirts and talk with the firefighters there. He also visited the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, which “was breathtaking,” he said.
“To see what happened back on that particular day is just – it’s unbelievable,” Eriksen said. “With myself being from New York, with my family from New York, my dad from New York, my cousin passing away ... it was just kind of something that was near and dear to my heart.”
Nick Eriksen, Pat’s 17-year-old son, was not alive on Sept. 11, 2001, but said because of his family’s connections he’s taken extra care and special interest to learn about the day.
“That builds on the interest,” Nick Eriksen said. “And it makes me proud to say that I’m a fireman’s son, because they’re willing to do all that risky stuff for us.”
Nick said he believes it’s important to acknowledge the attacks and remember those who lost their lives that day.
“Twenty years is a long time,” Nick Eriksen said. “We had to build back up New York and lower Manhattan, and it’s just a huge milestone in the rebuilding of our country and how we fought terrorism.”
When his family visited the national museum, Nick said it “really hit hard for me and my dad and my family.” On display was a picture of Florio, destroyed firefighter helmets and the what’s known as the Survivors’ Stairs, a staircase at the edge of the elevated World Trade Center Plaza that provided an unobstructed exit for people fleeing the site.
“Being a fireman’s kid, it’s something that you don’t want to ever happen again,” Nick Eriksen said. “It makes you worry about your own family. It makes me worry about my dad and my family in New York that still do fireman things. It’s all the stories that really just hit hard and it’s just like, ‘Wow, they’re gone just because of the terrible acts that Al-Qaeda did.’ "
Nick Eriksen knows 9/11 is a day that will live in infamy.
“We just can’t forget what happened,” he said. “We need to keep doing these ceremonies to make sure that no kid forgets what [happened].”
Katie Finlon covers local government and breaking news for DeKalb County in Illinois. She has covered local government news for Shaw Media since 2018 and has had bylines in Daily Chronicle, Kendall County Record newspapers, Northwest Herald and in public radio over the years.