BALTIMORE — Firefighters from across the country responded to the September 11th attack at the World Trade Center in New York City.
One Baltimore County fire station sent a team who were trained in search and rescue.
Two members of that team shared their experience at Ground Zero and how it's changed their lives.
Retired Baltimore County Fire Department Lt. Mark Gardner said “every time the anniversary rolls around it seems like it was just since yesterday to many of us. And 20 years is a milestone mark, but it’s hard to believe it’s been that long.”
Baltimore County Fire Department fire apparatus driver operator Chris Wilhelm said “pretty much was still a rookie at that point. I had just started my career and now I’m over the hump and looking towards the end of my career with retirement coming up on the horizon.
Now a little older, a little grayer but like most Americans, Gardner and Wilhelm remember the vivid details of September 11th, 2001 as if it were yesterday.
“Our pagers started going off. That was back in the day when you still had the pagers on your belt. And, then started making the phone calls and found out, I’d say about 11 o’clock we were getting ready to leave here to head to the World Trade Center,” Wilhelm said.
Ten members of Baltimore County's Texas Fire Station who were trained in urban search and rescue for FEMA, were called into action and on their way to New York City.
“As we approach the city and we’re close to the Meadowlands we looked over and you could see you just what was the remains of where the towers were. Just a column smoke, and a lot of lights in that area ,and the entire bus that I was on got totally quiet,” Gardner said.
Once they arrived, they were briefed on the situation and divided into two 12-hour teams - a day shift and night shift.
By the next morning, Gardner was at Ground Zero and directly facing the reality of what happened.
“We could see just the white film covering everything on sight, from the concrete dust and things like that. As we stepped off the bus, one of the first things we saw was an airplane wheel right in the roadway,” Gardner said.
“It was kind of hard not knowing what you were getting into. If you were going to be saving people. If you’re going to be recovering people, but you knew you were sent there for a reason to help and you just had to prepare for what you were going to do,” Wilhelm said.
The team's mission was to search for victims, dead or alive. What they found were the bodies of New York City's elite rescue team, known as Rescue One, in one of the towers’ collapsed stairwells.
“We had trained with many of those personnel in our task force trainings and other rescue specialty programs that have been given up and down the east coast. We knew several of the members of Rescue One, which was very difficult for us to recover their bodies,” Gardner said.
A portion of a steel beam retrieved from the wreckage of the Twin Towers now holds a place at the Texas fire station. It serves as a tangible reminder of what these firefighters experienced in New York city 20 years ago.
“It’s something that you never let go of. It also drew me closer to family and being thankful that every moment we could have together is an important one because you never know when our last time is going to be together. It’s one of the things coming into fire service and rescue work, we know that every time we go out the door for an alarm,” Gardner said.
“I just remember leaving here with my sons. I had two young sons, my father was retired, he held my son out front and he was waving at us as we were leaving.And, leaving my wife back for 14 days to fend for my kids with help from friends and family,” Wilhelm said.
The devastation and loss of life also took a toll on the four-legged members of the rescue team.
“They actually at one point became depressed, the dogs. We could see their reactions were not normal. They weren’t themselves, so we actually took firefighters and rescue personnel and hid in some of the buildings that were not involved and let the dogs find us to get a live find,” Gardner said.
Afterwards, counselors were on hand to help firefighters cope with what they experienced.
Meanwhile, the long-lasting effects of 9/11 aren't just mental but physical. Hundreds of first responders have died of 9/11 related illnesses within the last 20 years.
“We are closely monitored and go for annual reviews and tests and medications and treatments are available to us as a result of that,” Gardner said.
Some memories of September 11th are less painful, such as what happened on September 12th and the days and weeks which followed.
“Seeing the flags when people really rallied together and supported the country and strength in numbers that way and being united, was a powerful thing to see. It really made us proud of the time we were able to do something up there and help in our little way,” Gardner said.
“It was really overwhelming to see the public support. Every bridge we crossed, every overpass, American flags, people standing there, saluting us. Just thanking us for what we did,” Wilhelm said.
Gardner also remembered whom he sees as the true heroes of that day.
“The people that need the thanks are the ones that were in those buildings. The firefighters and rescue personnel who went charging in knowing their fate may be that they may not make it back out of those buildings, they were the true heroes in our minds,” Gardner said.
In the years since September 11th, 2001, Wilhelm takes every 9/11 as a chance to spend with family.
“Because a lot of people don’t. You never realize, like the Trade Center, when it might not be your day, you know, your last one,” Wilhelm said.