PORT RICHEY — Pasco Fire Rescue firefighter-paramedic Beesan Mustafa climbed into the shiny cab of FDNY's Rescue 5. He gripped the steering wheel, then took a long pause to reflect.
Eleven years ago this truck was nearly destroyed in the Sept. 11 attacks. Staged one block from the World Trade Center, Rescue 5 was battered by the wall of debris that flooded Lower Manhattan after the towers collapsed. Eleven firefighters from Rescue 5 died. Only one member of the company survived.
Today their memory lives on as part of the nonprofit Remembrance Rescue Project, created by firefighters to restore, preserve and share FDNY's Rescue 4 and Rescue 5 trucks from Sept. 11. The restored engines now tour the country as educational tools, historical artifacts and memorials to Sept. 11.
Sitting in the truck on Tuesday brought a flood of emotions to Mustafa, who was serving in the U.S. Army in the Middle East when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred. He would eventually serve three back-to-back tours as a combat medic in Afghanistan and Iraq through 2004.
"Sitting in that truck brought everything back to me," Mustafa said. "It all came together at once: 9/11 and why we are fighting in the Middle East, the soldiers who are my friends, the soldiers I lost, and how lucky and blessed I am to not be one of the firefighters who died, or one of the soldiers who died."
"I am still living in one of the greatest countries in the world, it is a moment like this that makes you appreciate a lot of things."
Pasco Fire Rescue driver-EMT Jess Walker, who started his career as a volunteer firefighter on Long Island, drove the truck on Tuesday. Walker was there during the attacks and comes from a family of New York firefighters.
"It is an honor to drive this truck," Walker said. "A lot of people don't get to walk through this truck, let alone drive it. It was a good feeling to see it."
Stationed on Staten Island, FDNY's Rescue Company 5 is an elite crew, specialists in tactical rescues.
"These are the firemen who come to rescue firemen," Walker said. "Seeing this truck really hits home, it reminds you of back then. There were a lot of funerals. It makes you think about what these guys went through, risking their lives for other people."
Helping organize the Pasco leg of the tour is Pasco Fire Rescue Capt. Lee Hudson, who said the truck can help educate those who were too young to understand the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Many of our young firefighters who are 21 or 22 years old were only 10 or 11 when it happened," Hudson said. "For a lot of these young guys the only thing they know about Sept. 11 is what they have seen on the History Channel or what their parents have told them."
Hudson said more than 500 Pasco firefighters at 26 stations will have the opportunity to see Rescue 5 before it moves on to Hillsborough County next week. From there, it will continue its national tour of firehouses to facilitate educational programming and events to honor the 343 firefighters killed on Sept. 11, as well as all emergency responders killed in the line of duty each year.
Firefighters from across the country volunteer their time for each leg of the mission. There are no paid members within the Remembrance Rescue Project. Donations are used for fuel, maintenance and travel costs for the rescues.
"Seeing this truck makes you think back to exactly where you were when you watched the attacks. It really takes you back to that day," Hudson said. "To sit in that truck and realize that out of everyone who rode on that truck to the World Trade Center that day, only one came back alive, it makes you reflect a bit."
"We get on a truck 10 times a day and we come back safe every time," he added. "It makes you realize how important this job is and how important it is that everyone comes back to the firehouse after every call."