Alex Sanchez remembers the bang.
It thundered through lower Manhattan, said Sanchez, who at first thought the sound was a truck crashing into a building. The Harlem resident, who at the time worked as a janitor for New York University, heard the clamor as he walked a co-worker to 100 Centre Street for a hearing. It wasn’t until he moved further south that he discovered the real source of the noise.
“We thought it was an accident,” he said, recalling peering up at the smoldering North Tower. “Then we saw the second plane hit and that’s when all hell broke loose.”
The men and women who gave of their time, their efforts — of themselves — following the attacks on September, 11 2001, will be forever regarded as heroes, from the firefighters who extinguished flames and searched for survivors under the rubble to the police officers who directed people out of the area and to safety.
Sanchez, a first responder at Ground Zero, sifted through debris and cleaned up scraps of the Twin Towers that covered the city’s streets.
Every day following the attacks, Sanchez, along with 800 other workers, removed clutter from the former site of the World Trade Center. While the labor was strenuous, Sanchez said morale and compassion drove their efforts.
“Everyone was more than eager to go in on a daily basis,” he said.
A main portion of their work involved cleaning ventilation units. Sanchez said inside the building’s hull there was so much dust you couldn’t see anything. As he crawled through the vent system, he was outfitted with gloves, goggles, a PVAC suit and a hospital mask.
Sanchez founded United We Stand, a group that assists undocumented workers who assisted after the 9/11 attacks and have subsequently experienced health issues stemming from inhaling dust, fumes and smoke. Sanchez said he now suffers from chronic asthma and upper airway obstruction and has developed nodules in his lungs. He is now on permanent disability.
The catastrophic event brought Sanchez close to others affected by September 11, including spouses and children who lost loved ones. According to him, many who perished were not granted proper funerals, something he believes the city is accountable for.
Sanchez said events following the attacks have negatively influenced his view of the city.
“In a country like ours, it’s really sad that people’s lives are put in jeopardy,” said Sanchez. “We’ve become a test tube for disaster.”
Glen Klein was in the middle of a cup of coffee when he got a call from a friend, exclaiming that a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. It wasn’t until he turned on his television and saw the second plane collide that the event seemed real.
Klein, a former member of the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit (ESU), immediately drove to his outfit — the 109th Precinct — gathered supplies and fellow officers, and headed downtown.
Along with 300 other members of the ESU, Klein searched through debris for bodies. In their efforts, 14 ESU officers went missing.
“For the first six days, we thought we would find them alive,” said Klein. “If anyone’s going to survive, I thought it would be our guys.”
None of the missing officers were found alive.
Klein retired in 2003 after he began to feel both the physical and mental effects from 9/11. The 16-year-veteran of the ESU suffered precancerous polyps, GERD, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal issues and post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he receives assistance from the World Trade Center Health Program.
Klein is now the vice president of the “FealGood Foundation,” a group that advocates for 9/11 first responders who suffer from subsequent illnesses. He said assisting others acts as personal therapy and connects him with what he loved about being a police officer — helping people.