Nineteen Years Later, Vivid Memories of 9/11

Times Herald Record - September 12, 2020

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A generation has grown up since Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked four commercial jets, crashing them into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and into a field in Shanksville, Pa.

Even as the terrible events of that day and the horrors uncovered in the days that followed have become history, the toll of 9/11 has continued, slowly claiming the lives of emergency responders and people who lived or worked in the neighborhood who were exposed to the toxic dust and debris left behind.

“We lost well over 200,” said Don Borthwick of Highland Mills, who retired as a Battalion Chief with the Fire Department of New York’s 13 Battalion in Washington Heights.

“Two hundred twenty-seven as of this morning,” added John Bruckner of Middletown, retired Battalion Chief with the 27 Battalion in Bronx.

Those are the deaths in the intervening years, from cancers and other 9/11-related illnesses. On the day terrorists flew planes into the towers and the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pa., the FDNY lost 343 firefighters.

“We lost a lot of friends that days, and now we’re still losing them,” Bruckner said.

Both men responded to the towers that morning. Bruckner was on West Street, which ran next to the towers, when the second plane hit. Police provided escorts to get firefighters to the towers, they said.

“We all went there when we heard it on the news,” Borthwick said. “We all went right into searching.”

Visibility was zero. They kept working at the site after the towers fell, in the days and weeks after rescue turned to a recovery operation. There were no masks for the first two weeks, Borthwick said; they made do with what they could find or improvise. He said he has asthma now, and he and Bruckner both have upper respiratory issues.

According to the National Law Enforcement Memorial and Museum, 72 police officers died in the response to the attacks and 350 more have died in the intervening years from illnesses caused by exposure to toxins at the sites.

Bruckner said he knows memory of the day will fade for most people, even though the events of the day are taught in schools.

“Not for us,” Borthwick said.

“A day doesn’t go by (that) I don’t think about 9/11,” Bruckner said. “It gets heavier this time of year.”

“In our minds,” Borthwick adds, “it’ll never change. It’ll always be something that’s deep.”