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Serving A Higher Purpose: Bob Fenton Remembers 9/11

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Bob Fenton

In 2001, Bob Fenton was an Operations Senior Program Specialist in FEMA Region 9. On the morning of Sept. 11, he had just arrived via an overnight flight from California for a meeting at the agency’s Region 3 headquarters in Philadelphia.

Like so many others that day, Bob and his colleagues gathered around a television, watching the events unfold. They were worried about the fate of FEMA employees at Region 2 headquarters in New York City and the effect the events would have on the agency. Later that morning, Bob got a call from agency leadership asking him to come and lead the response at the World Trade Center.

The next day, Bob entered Manhattan for the first time in his life. “The feeling was surreal,” said Bob, “…to drive into the city with no traffic. What I had seen on TV and in movies was nowhere to be found, it was all replaced by deserted, smoke and debris filled streets and a smell that lingered on your clothes.”

The first couple days after the attack were marked with uncertainty. Communications had been destroyed and command and control had yet to be established for the mission. While the main goal at the site was to save people and do everything possible to support first responders, other critical objectives were difficult to prioritize. A short time later, the city’s priorities were finalized and focused on a massive search and rescue mission, complete with equipment such as cranes, specialized torches, and lumber to shore up unstable areas. Another top priority was restoring communications to the area. “You could look down the street, and for blocks you’d see people splicing together fiber optic cables,” said Bob.

Four or five days after arriving, Bob handed over the responsibility for operations to Federal Coordinating Office Bill Carwile but stayed in New York City supporting the response and recovery for 21 more days as Deputy Operations Section Chief.

When thinking back on the work the agency accomplished, Bob remembers how everyone worked toward a higher purpose in service of the nation. “We were all working urgently, doing anything we could to expedite recovery. We did some really special things,” added Bob. “The New York Fire Department came to us for help after losing so many of their own that day. We helped them by providing a fire engine staffed with Urban Search and Rescue personnel, who also helped answer 911 calls around the city.” An especially poignant mission came as a direct request from the NYFD to support firefighter funerals. “Firefighter memorials are elaborate and meaningful. It was so important that we made sure we provided them with everything they needed to uphold their traditions and history. About 250 employees, including those at the U.S. Fire Administration, partnered with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation and other charitable organizations to ensure the funerals met the expectations of both the firefighting community and the families who had lost a loved one that day.”

Bob remembers the genuine need that drove people around the nation to volunteer at the site. “I remember being near the World Trade Center, and there was a police car from Miami.”

Bob eventually left New York as part of a team who were tasked with planning for potential risks and threats from the country’s move toward war. “I still remember the message boards set up in the city,” said Bob. “They brought home the reality of how many people lost their lives, and the lasting impact the day would have on the nation.”

Since joining FEMA in 1996, Bob Fenton has served in many leadership roles and responded to more than 50 Presidentially declared disasters. Currently, Bob is FEMA Region 9 Regional Administrator, a position he has held since 2015.