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Former Indianapolis Firefighter Reflects On His Experience At Ground Zero

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(CNN News Source)

Twenty years ago, the country changed forever after terrorists flew commercial jets into the World Trade Center, The Pentagon, and a rural Pennsylvania field, killing thousands.

Within hours of the attacks, Indianapolis firefighter Greg Gates was on his way to Ground Zero to help with rescue efforts. 

Greg Gates
Retired Firefighter Greg Gates responded to the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001.

“And when the towers first collapsed, I got a call back from my wife, and I said, I don't know whether we're going to be called or not, and moments later, we were deployed,” said Gates, now a fire investigator with the Lawrence, Indiana Fire Department.

Gates served on Task Force 1, a multi-jurisdictional outfit of firefighters and first responders who usually help with recovery efforts after a hurricane or earthquake, but they had never responded to something of this scale.

“As far as the size of an episode, it absolutely has been the worst. And there's nothing been as large of an episode since.”

Gates had to search through rubble and surrounding buildings looking for survivors.

“We did not find any survivors. We did however, find mostly parts of people.”

It was a hazardous job. Gates recalled a time when his crew entered an underground room that contained a 60,000-gallon vat of diesel fuel for the New York City subway system.

“Brian Mulhern, who was our team leader, ordered me out of a hole, and as I got up to the top of a hole, a tremendous amount of black smoke came up, and then the smoke ignited.”

The ensuing fireball injured three of his colleagues, all of whom were lucky to survive. There were other moments that stick in Gates’ mind from those days combing through the rubble in New York.

World Trade Center Debris
First responders comb through debris at the World Trade Center, shortly after September 11th, 2001.

“As I was walking along, there was a piece of paper that was stamped with a stamp that said, most important, and I wondered whose paper that was and what they must think now.”

While those memories of that tragic day are seared in Gates’ mind, he along with other first responders and military veterans want to make sure younger Americans never forget the heroism thousands of people showed that day.

Retired U.S. Airforce General Stuart Goodwin heads up the Indiana War Memorial. He’s helping with the restoration of the 9/11 memorial, located on Ohio Street in Indianapolis.

On Saturday, September 11th, a chunk of limestone donated by the Pentagon will be unveiled at a ceremony marking 20-years since the attacks.

“The 800 pieces per pound of limestone that came right where the impact of the Pentagon was. And that's where general Lieutenant General Tim Maude was the senior person military person killed that day, his office was just in that in that same vicinity.”

Like Goodwin, Maude was a native Hoosier. The limestone display will honor the 7,015 service men and women killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Indiana 911 Memorial
Tarps cover an area where a chunk of limestone from the Pentagon will be placed on September 11th, 2021.

“This is this is a time in our country, where this single event changed the way we live. Think about going to an airport, think about going to a sporting event, you know, you don't just walk in and you just don't you know, you have to be checked, you have to make sure that you're who you say that you are,” said Goodwin.

Memories aren’t the only thing Gates carries with him from 9-11.  He suffers from a condition called reactive airway disease, which he contracted from working in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

“There was a lot of dust and a lot of contaminants in the dust. Those contaminants made a lot of us sick. And fortunately, that was several of our members are much sicker than I am,” said Gates.

While Gates says there’s nothing, he can do to cure his condition, the now semi-retired firefighter wants to spend his time educating people about how the 9-11 attacks brought people together.

“This terrible act was not done by a religion by a race, but by murderous thugs. There were people working on the pile of that same nationality. There were people working that pile from that same religion.”

Gates said if he had to do it all over again, he would have gone to Ground Zero again to answer the call like hundreds of first responders did on that day 20 years ago.

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