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Ground zero first responders will never forget 9/11

Posted September 9, 2011

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— For the first responders who headed into danger at ground zero on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the memories of the chaos, crumbling buildings and lives lost may never fade away.

A decade later, former New York City police officer James Johnson, who now lives with his family in Cary, said he doesn't want to forget that day.

"I remember the building falling, the people falling, but I also remember how America came together," he said. "Everybody had flags on their cars. They had flags on their doors. Everybody was waving at everyone and we banded together."

Johnson remembers that morning, in the hours before 19 terrorists changed the nation forever, as bright and sunny, without a cloud in the sky.

"I was about to take off that day and an officer said, 'Johnson, we need you.' They said a plane ran into the World Trade Center and right away, I thought, 'terrorists,'" Johnson recalled.

Johnson went to the top floor of the precinct to get a better look at the flaming north tower.

"I saw the two buildings and one of them was burning, and then I saw a flash on the second building," he said.

James Johnson Former NYC officer: On 9/11, 'we all became family'

United Airlines Flight 175 plowed into the South Tower, just 17 minutes after the first strike.

"It was chaos," he said. 

The seasoned officer, who now lives in Cary with his family, said he felt an unfamiliar uneasiness.

"I realized what was different is that I was married and I had children," he said. "I was thinking, who's going to take care of them if something happens to me?'" 

From 14 blocks away, Johnson watched as the towers began to look like they were melting.

"I saw things falling from the building ... then I saw a wiggling and I realized they were people," he said. "I saw a guy (who) had his arm out like a cross and he just fell back. I saw people holding hands, and I remember thinking, 'Here I am with a badge and a gun and I can do nothing about it.'"

For the next several days, Johnson joined hundreds of police officers and firefighters who searched the rubble for survivors.

"It was like going through a tragedy with a family member," he said. "We all became family."

Arty Riccio New York City firefighters share special bond after 9/11

Queens firefighter John Fee was part of that family. Many of his closest friends were killed when the towers fell, but he said he has never wavered in continuing the work he loves.

"I'd be letting them down if I gave up and quit and they would be winning. The people that did this would be winning," he said.

The building that houses Fee's engine company – No. 311 – has become a shrine to the 343 firefighters killed on Sept. 11.

"So many guys had young babies," said Arty Riccio, who has been a firefighter for 29 years. "Those kids are not going to remember them. I was feeling that I should have died instead of them because my kids would have remembered me."

He recalled going to funeral after funeral in the days following the attacks and said the shared sense of loss strengthened the bond among firefighters. He hopes that people will be reminded of their common humanity on Sept. 11, 2011, as they pause to remember the attacks 10 years ago.

"This time of year, it's not easy," Riccio said. "It makes me feel a little better that maybe I can get a word out – hey, let's be nice to each other. Never forget 9/11. Let's all be good people."

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  • Henry Bourne Sep 12, 2011

    How could the first responders forget? Most of them are coughing up blood from breathing the asbestos in the air that the EPA said was safe to breath. Now the government screens them like terrorists when they apply for medical aid.