This Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York City and the Pentagon that cut short thousands of lives, including hundreds of first-responders, 343 of them firefighters.
After the initial shock in the days following, Americans rallied together and coalesced as a nation, including 80 members of the San Diego Fire Department who left their families and loved ones behind, volunteering to travel to New York so that the finest from America's Finest City could aid New York's search-and-rescue and, sadly, recovery efforts.
Once there, San Diego's firefighters worked arm-in-arm with colleagues from around the United States on the pile — the name given to that awful mountain of debris made from the rubble of 110-story World Trade Center's twin towers. The pile burned for 99 days — another unsought historic footnote, the longest-burning structural fire in the history of the United States.
After Sept. 12, 2001, the last day a victim was rescued, firefighters shifted focus solely to recovery efforts. The work was brutal, hot and dangerous, probing for voids in the rubble. Besides fires still burning at the site, firefighters also had to contend with toxic dust and hot, jagged pieces of metal everywhere that had to be painstakingly removed, sometimes by hand.
In fact, the danger continued for many for years after they left Ground Zero. In July 2019, Congress passed the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund for the thousands of firefighters, police, construction workers and others who spent time working in the soot, often without proper respiratory protection. In the years since, many have seen their health decline, some with respiratory or digestive-system ailments that appeared almost immediately, others with illnesses that developed as they aged, including cancer.
Twenty years later, eight of those San Diego first-responders who went to New York are still on the job. As the solemn anniversary neared, NBC 7's Mark Mullen sat down with five of them — John Fisher, Johnny Flores, Matt Nilsen, Michael Scott and John Wood — to remember their self-described "small" but vital contribution, asking them what it was like, as professional search-and-rescue specialists, to have gone there, aware of the enormity of the damage and also with the knowledge that so many of their colleagues lost their lives that terrible sunny day 20 years ago.
Arriving in New York
"We had a couple of days to kind of take in what we witnessed on TV and then kind of deal with that aspect of it as an American citizen and seeing what's happening to our country," Flores replied, adding later that the event was seared into his mind, never to be forgotten: "especially not having ever been to New York before, the sounds, the smells — those things are locked into my memory."
"Knowing that that's what we were going there to do, I think gave us all a sense of purpose," Fisher said.
"We were kind of fortunate to be able to go out there and be of service, and try to be part of the response," Nilsen chimed in.
"It was very much a sense that we were working on sacred ground now," Fisher added. "You know, we were across the street from a church and a lot of the bodies had been brought there, but the pile itself and … everything was, you know — nobody was unaware of how many people had died there."
Working at Ground Zero
The firefighters all agreed 9/11 was made that much more sobering by the fact so many of their colleagues died trying to help people.
"When you walked up and saw the place, you couldn't help — you're gonna have some adrenaline going because you want to do your job very well, but you're also sitting there going, 'Whoa, this is way different than what I saw in the cameras," Wood told Mullen.
"You know, the cameras can't capture what your human body can capture … the cameras cannot capture or be able to see and hear and smell all those things," Scott added.
While there's no doubt that being part of history, helping in the recovery efforts, gave the five men an experience that profoundly affected them, at the same time they were all fundamentally humble — and humbling — about their contributions.
"My personal feeling was just a sense of pride that we represented our community and we did our small part," Scott said.
It's a sentiment echoed by Scott's fellow firemen.
"Being able to contribute and participate like that is just — I think it's core to who we are," Nilsen said.
"We would do it all over again," Wood said, "We would do it a million times over."
For Fisher, the work in New York's devastated financial district contained a personal element.
"I had friends who worked with FDNY at the time, some of whom perished," Fisher said. "And, so, being able to get out there and help was enormously gratifying."
San Diego Remembers 9/11 on 15th Anniversary of Terrorist Attacks
In fact, Fisher felt his contributions on a personal level for years after, and to this day as well.
"Honestly, it took me about 10 years before I could go back to New York City, no less lower Manhattan," Fisher said. "And I took the tour, and the guy who was the tour guide, I could tell right away was a firefighter just by the way he presented, the way he taught, and there's a part of the tour where you stand there and have quiet reflection time, and I went and talked to him, and it turned out that he had retired just before 9/11, but his old crew was recovered by this task force, and it was a very, very touching moment."
Lessons and a Legacy
San Diego's twin-towers volunteers believe that there were important lessons learned in the wake of the terror attacks that, in some cases, have been lost and are worthy of renewal as part of 9/11’s legacy —the 2,977 victims, including the 40 who were killed when the hijacked US Flight 93 crashed in rural Pennsylvania.
"Let's not forget a lot of everyday working folk lost their lives, the police officers, the firefighters, so, sometimes we personalize it, but we have to remember that we're all on," Wood said. "It was great to see the country come together at that point. It was amazing."
"What strikes me is to not forget what we became as a country," Nilsen added. "You know, just driving down the road and everybody giving each other the right-of-way and showing some compassion toward everybody. I think that's something that I wish we could remember without being under the stress of such an environment like that."
"You know, we should never forget the terrorist act that caused that death and destruction that day," Scott said. "We should never forget the civilians who lost their lives. We should never forget the first-responders that risked their lives and lost their lives trying to help others. And I certainly know think that, as the first-responder community, we'll never forget that experience, having been a part of it, having done our small part to contribute, having done our small part for that sense of hope, because that's what that response is partly about: is hope that things might be OK. They will get better."
Several 9/11 events are planned in San Diego on Saturday, including a commemoration at the Hotel Del Coronado at 8 a.m.
The Associated Press contributed to this report -- Ed.