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9/11 First Responder Says Thoughts, Emotions to Stay Forever

© AP Photo / Gene BoyarsThe US Federal Bureau of Investigation is facing accusations that it has constantly whitewashed Saudi Arabian connections to the 9/11 attacks in the wake a new update report on the Bureau's investigations.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation is facing accusations that it has constantly whitewashed Saudi Arabian connections to the 9/11 attacks in the wake a new update report on the Bureau's investigations. - Sputnik International
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Firefighter Steven Casquarelli said in an exclusive interview with Sputnik he felt more anxious than anything to step foot onto Ground Zero the day of September 11, 2001, emotions still painful and likely to stay forever.

New York City firefighters stand at Ground Zero in New York. - Sputnik International
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NEW YORK (Sputnik), Vasili Sushko — Casquarelli, a 60-year-old retired Lieutenant for the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), was forced to watch the early hours of the aftermath of the attacks on his Brooklyn firehouse television set.

"What we were watching on television was just incredible, we really couldn't believe it. We weren’t sure if the buildings would collapse or not and then they did. We were taking guesses at how many people had lost their lives so there were a lot of concerned people in the firehouse. Everybody was anxious. Anxious to get in and do what we can do to help," Casquarelli said.

THEN CAME THE CALL

After both towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed, Casquarelli and his company were called in to Lower Manhattan to assist in search-and-recover operations.

While driving over the Manhattan Bridge through the smoke, they arrived at Ground Zero. None of them knew they would call it home for the next two and a half months.

"When we got down there it really hit home. Seeing the smoke and of course seeing the mounds, the two piles where the two towers used to be is an ever-lasting image that I have. Our shifts changed dramatically. We were working 24 hours on and then we went home for 24 hours and then it repeated itself. I ended up leaving two and a half months later," Casquarelli said. "There was no relief."

New York City firefighters and others gather around a barricade as excavators remove debris, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2001, as the recovery and cleanup mission continued at ground zero of the World Trade Center in New York. - Sputnik International
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BODIES

The total amount of casualties at the World Trade Center site was 2,852. Of those casualties, 343 were firefighters and 71 were law enforcement officers.

As Casquarelli and his team searched the ruble for bodies, there was one body in particular, one of their own, that couldn't be moved. It formed an image that Casquarelli said he would never forget.

"As we were excavating we saw a firefighter that was in the debris right at the wall by one of the buildings. You can see just one arm hanging out. You can tell by the black turnout coat and yellow stripes on his sleeve he was a firefighter. They were being careful and patient to dig him out and remove the body because it was in a spot that was very dangerous for collapse. They had to leave him there for a while until it was safe to do exactly that."

I HAD TO RETIRE

The following year, Casquarelli retired from the FDNY due to health reasons. Following a pulmonary exam of his lungs he was diagnosed with Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome (RADS) and learned that he had lost 37 percent of his lung capacity.

According to the World Trade Center Environmental Organization, the dust and fumes that surrounded Ground Zero contained toxins such as lead, mercury and dioxin. Casquarelli had spent weeks breathing in that very same dust.

"I firmly believe that breathing all that stuff is directly responsible for my lung problem," Casquarelli said.

In the years following the attacks, Casquarelli developed more than just a physical disability that barred him from working. Mentally, he noticed something wrong as well.

"The first couple years I thought were okay, but they really weren’t because I wasn't aware of certain behaviors and problems that were evolving in me at the time. I noticed after a while there was something not right with the way I was acting," Casquarelli said.

After seeking mental help, Casquarelli believes he has his mental condition under control.

"Today I think I’m a lot better but there’s still occasionally thoughts and emotions that arise that still bother me. They are probably going to be there forever," he added.

MAKING SENSE OF IT ALL

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Of the 343 firefighters who died on September 11, 2001, Casquarelli knew roughly 40. Some were merely acquaintances, while others were close friends.

As the world marks the 14th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Casquarelli will head to his Brooklyn firehouse and attend a memorial to remember them all.

Despite losing numerous friends and succumbing to mental and physical health problems, one thing Casquarelli does not feel is hatred.

"There have to be lessons learned, and I think one of those lessons is to have respect for other people, no matter who and what they represent. Whether it is their nationality or their religion, respect it. You may not agree with it, you may not like it, but just respect it. I do believe that back then there were other factions that didn’t like us and they took it out on us down here. I don’t think they necessarily disliked Americans. It might have been the government. I don’t know what it was, but if we can just gain a mutual respect for each other I think things like this will stop," Casquarelli said.

Casquarelli currently volunteers at the 9/11 Tribute Center, a non-profit organization founded in 2006 that provides the public with first hand accounts of the September 11 attacks from victims’ family members, survivors and first responders. One of Casquarelli’s favorite jobs at the center is providing guided tours of the National September 11 Memorial to tourists who visit the site.

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