AFTER the 9/11 attacks on New York, firefighter Rob Lopez spent five days at the smouldering ruins of the Twin Towers.

Despite living in the city all his life, he has never been back to the site. He has not been able to face it.

He isn’t sure if he ever will but his children may change that one day.

Rob was a 28 year old rookie at FDNY in 2001 based at a Brooklyn fire house on that fateful day.

He hadn’t even completed his training.

I met him a few weeks later in November 2001 at his then posting with Ladder 65 on East 43rd Street.

With photographer Corin Messer, I called at the fire house completely by chance during a Daily Echo reporting assignment.

As part of our visit with a 100-strong tour group who had flown to New York from Bournemouth with Bath Travel, we had a cheque to hand over from Dorset firefighters who wanted to show their support.

Ladder 65, between Times Square and Grand Central Station was the first fire house we came across. We knocked at the door and received an incredibly generous welcome from Captain Matt Murtaugh and his crew.

Read more: 'I was gobsmacked': When the Daily Echo reported from post 9/11 New York

Recently I met up with Rob again in March, 21 years later in Times Square just a few hundred yards from his old fire house.

He had made contact through social media last year, on the 20th anniversary of the attacks.

On Thursday September 9, 2021, he tweeted him a picture of the original Echo report that he had kept for those two decades.

Rob tweeted: “I’ve had this on my wall close to 20 years now. I want to say thank you after all these years for your generosity and kindness that night you stopped by."

When we met in March, he cast his mind back to September 11. It was his first call out in the field having joined Engine 219 at Brooklyn only the previous Friday.

“It was an overwhelming experience. There are things I remember like it was yesterday and there are other things I can’t remember, for example what the hell I did for all those hours on the day.

“The second tower fell at 10.28 and we had just got down there on a bus. The chaos that ensued, it was like a sensory overload."

The crew spent a week at Ground Zero looking for fallen FDNY colleagues, including seven of their own. They were never found.

Rob continued: “After a week the captain of the company says to me, you’re done. You are still training. You need to learn what you do on a fire truck and how the fire department works.

"I pleaded with him to let me stay down there but he said, I know you want to stay, but you are out of here."

Rob said looking back now he thanks the captain for what was a good management decision.

"A couple of weeks later they cut our training short and I came to the fire house on East 43rd Street because all the units in Midtown and Downtown had lost so many guys."

Before joining FDNY aged 28, Rob had been in construction and worked as a systems mechanic for Pepsi Cola in Queens.

He nearly joined NYPD like his grandfather.

For the last eight years he has been at Engine 63 in the Bronx, and is now serving as a lieutenant.

"I am very thankful for my career," he said.

9/11 still resonates through the years and while at the site of the two reflecting pools on the footprint of each tower, the 9/11 museum and the new Freedom Tower draws tens of thousands of visitors each day, the effect of those devastating hours is still felt.

Rob said: "Even to this day we still have men dying from what we call Trade Center exposure to the dust and asbestos and everything else. There are a dozen types of cancers that have resulted.

"The men are still recognised as casualties of 911. I am lucky. My health has been generally good."

Rob is now married with two boys aged eleven and nine. And that may change his perspective.

"I have never been back and I know plenty of people who cannot physically return.

"Maybe I will one day. I had uncles who were Vietnam veterans. They didn’t talk about it and didn’t want to talk about it.

"So I am careful about how much I talk to my boys about 9/11. They are still young but one day I will sit down with them.

“I have not had the courage to go down there. I have learned to live with what happened. I have a family to take care of. But I will do it for them one day if that’s what they want to do."

Rob plans to do another five or six years before retiring.

"I still love coming to work which is a blessing. Many of my colleagues did not have that choice."