Local first responder recalls firsthand experience at Ground Zero

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Chris Gherardi was at Ground Zero in New York City (WTVD)

Most adults can recall where they were the moment they heard about the attacks of September 11th, 2001. But Chris Gherardi has a different memory than most.

Gherardi remembers heading for Ground Zero as a New York City first responder.

"I was sent in there and got in directly before the second tower collapsed," he told ABC11.

He had just finished a 16-hour shift and was sleeping when his phone rang,. His boss was on the line.

"I said 'There was some movie on about the Trade Center being attacked,'" said Gherardi, "and he said 'That's not a movie, it's happening right now.'"

Gherardi remembers observing what was happening around him in a total state of disbelief.

"I was actually coming down the street, and you saw the tower come down. We stopped, and you look at it, and you're shocked. Like 'This can't be happening, it's not real life,'" Gherardi recalled. "The one thing I take away from that is when we're driving into the city, you saw so many people on the sidewalks cheering us, clapping for us, thankful that we're coming to help them. And that's one thing that always stands in the back of my head."

He said he felt mixed emotions that day, as he tried to help others amid the chaos.

"I was a little panicked because, you know, I have coworkers there. You know you're friends and fellow coworkers...you look at the collapse. You knew they died. But you didn't have time to worry about them. You're worried about everybody else and you're worried about yourself."

Gherardi recalled the feeling of not being able to fully comprehend the magnitude of the situation as it unfolded.

"You look down there and you knows it's in the back of your head you have to help these people and try to help these people, and you know have first responders killed, and you block all that out. You almost become numb to your surroundings. Every once in a while you heard some screams, you hear people crying. That day, there was no color in America. Everything was gray. Everybody looked the same. Everybody was covered in ash."

He stayed on the job for five days straight. He shared with ABC11 an especially chilling moment that sticks with him 15 years later.

"I was just walking around and the next thing I know, I was on top of the rubble. And I didn't realize I'm standing on top of the World Trade Center, and I look to the side and I'm about twenty stories up in the air."

Memories like that still haunt him, years after he moved away from New York and began work with Wake County EMS. He says he's still not ready for a return to Ground Zero, and hasn't been back to New York City in years.

But the fallen firefighter memorial in downtown Raleigh reminds him of the friends and coworkers he lost on that awful day 15 years ago.

"It represents what every first responder has done," he said, "willing to give their lives for strangers."

Read more: Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh honors first responders, lives lost on 9/11

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