9/11 Anniversary: What it was like at Ground Zero, amid the rush to help and report

CHICAGO (WLS) -- On September 11, 2001, more than 50 emergency responders from Chicago and the suburbs dropped whatever they were doing and went to New York City.

ABC7 Investigative Reporter Chuck Goudie was also there at Ground Zero, the first Chicago TV reporter on the scene. There he met up with Pat Maloney and Greg Kurcab, both Chicago fire captains, when they went to the disaster site with a procession of CFD and suburban volunteers driving from Chicago.

"Coming across the George Washington Bridge everyone was silent, because there was like no more seeing this on TV. This was, this was it, seeing the building smoke on the skyline at night," Maloney recalled.

They were also given an extraordinary police escort along the entire route

"Lights and sirens-all the way through," he said. "And when we stopped for fuel, it was incredible. The outpouring of support of the Americans along the way, the citizens is giving us hugs... I kind of wish we had that today."

Kurcab reflected on the support they got from those they encountered along the way.

"We stopped at a McDonald's and a World War II veteran came up to us, with tears shook our hand and said thank you," he remembered. "That meant so much to me. To have a veteran who did it for years, but he broke down. He really thanked us for our service. That's something I'll never forget."

Maloney returns to New York City Friday, where he will attend 9/11 ceremonies and be joined, he said, by dozens of current and former Chicago firefighters.

"And it wasn't just New York City, it was also the Pentagon, Shanksville. They were, we were, down on our knees and we helped them stand up," he said.

Twenty years ago, amid nearly incomprehensible destruction, reporters searched for answers as first responders searched for survivors.

"What kind of hope do you have that there may still be people alive down there?" asked Goudie at the time.

"There's always hope. There could be people still down there," replied a New York firefighter.

Among emergency equipment scattered at the scene were vehicles from Illinois, and there in the dark at night, among the exhausted volunteers, were Chicago firefighters sleeping on cots close to Ground Zero.

There were so many from Chicago that after a few days, some were asked to return home so New York firefighters could better secure the site.

Nearly 20 years ago, retired Chicago Fire Commissioner Ray Orozco, Jr. pleaded with views to "Just pray for them. Pray for their families. Pray for their kids. And I'm not talkin' just pray today. Pray every day."

Decades later, the words, sights, sounds and smells of Ground Zero have stuck with anyone who survived, or who was there.

"I've always been going into harm's way my entire life. Even when my youngest daughter was asking me, 'Daddy are you gonna come home tonight,'" said Mike Fagel, who was among the first responders from the Chicago area to arrive.

Those rushing east by ground transportation to help also included emergency planners, rescue team members, police, paramedics, and firefighters.

"Humanity, I was heartsick for humanity," Fagel said.

Fagel is also sick himself; 10 years after 9/11 he was diagnosed with cancer and a lung disorder, as were many who may have been under-protected at Ground Zero.

He now teaches at the College of DuPage Homeland Security Training Institute where a World Trade Center beam stands prominent and New York is never far from mind.

For the 2,977 people who died that day in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, for their families, for those who went to rescue and those who simply went to report, for an entire generation of Americans , 9/11 remains our day of infamy.
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