Remembering all the lives that were lost on this day 19 years ago. And thinking of my cousin Richie Conte, firefighter and hero who was the only man from his company to come back home that day. Here’s his story.
A 9/11 survivor’s long journey from Ground Zero
Saved only by acts of fate, Rich Conte of Stowe still carries the legacy of his firefighter brothers
Written by David Goodman. Sep 7, 2012, STOWE, VT.
8:47 a.m., September 11, 2001. American Airlines flight 11 crashes into the North Tower, One World Trade Center between the 90th and 100th floors.
One minute later, an alarm goes off in the firehouse of Engine Company 33 and Ladder Company 9 in the East Village in Manhattan. Firefighters from Engine 33 scramble to board the red fire truck. Ladder 9’s firefighters roll out moments later.
Engine 33’s night shift driver — the “chauffeur,” in firefighter’s parlance — had just asked Rich Conte to cover for him so that he could leave early to drop off his kid at day care. Firefighters routinely cover for one another, and Rich took over with little thought. Conte normally rode “the back step” of the rig as a regular firefighter at Engine 33, but he had been a chauffeur in another FDNY engine company for eight years so he knew the job well.
It was the first act of fate for Rich Conte that morning.
Conte jumped behind the wheel and began rolling the rig. He paused to ask Bobby King, one of Engine 33’s regular chauffeurs, if he wanted to take over driving, but Bobby waved him off and told Conte to keep going – King would ride the back step on this call.
Another fateful turn.
Conte gripped the wheel and skillfully maneuvered his large truck through the growing crush of traffic around the World Trade Center. He reached the site within minutes. As he was about to turn the corner to drop his men at the entrance to the North Tower, Lt. Kevin Pfeiffer, Engine 33’s officer, ordered him to stop and let the men out. Conte was surprised — he assumed he would deliver his crew to the front doors of the North Tower a half block away.
But Lt. Pfeiffer was one of the best officers in the department — “he was definitely going to be a captain one day” — and Conte did as he was told. He set up his rig a half block from the building and started hooking up hoses.
It was a third act of fate in a span of just a few minutes.
A mere 48 minutes after it was hit, the 110-story South Tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. Thirty eight minutes after that, the North Tower vanished in a vortex of white dust.
Three firefighters from Ladder 9 and seven from Engine 33 died in the Twin Towers that day.
Rich Conte was the lone survivor of the Engine 33 firefighters who responded.
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Rich Conte grew up in Brooklyn. His father was a wedding photographer and his mother worked as a manager for Avon, the beauty products company. After graduating Brooklyn Tech high school, he worked as a disc jockey in nightclubs while attending Manhattan College and Brooklyn College part-time. He considered moving to Colorado to be a DJ and teach skiing, which he enjoyed. But in 1978, he decided to take the test to be a firefighter, thinking it might be an interesting job. In 1983, he was informed that he had passed the test.
“I liked to climb trees — I was a tree hugger since I was a little kid. Where could you go and get paid to climb?” he says.
At age 29, Rich Conte became a New York City firefighter. He and his wife moved to a town near Newburgh, New York, where they had two kids. Conte would commute about 90 minutes to the city, where he would pull several 24-hour shifts per week. For 15 years, he worked in Engine 18, eight of them working as a chauffeur driving fire trucks and running the pumps. His interest in nutrition — he is a vegetarian, “the smallest club in the fire department,” he jokes – led him to work for two years in the health and fitness unit at FDNY headquarters, where he helped other firefighters improve their diet and exercise. In 2000, he decided to return to working on the back step and joined Engine 33, which occupies a beautiful Beaux Arts firehouse on Great Jones Street in the East Village that it shares with Ladder 9.