Like everyone else, Sept. 11, 2001 started out like a normal day for John Cerqueira. However, the Raleigh native found himself in the middle of some terrifying moments inside one of the Twin Towers. In fact, Cerqueira's decision to help save a life more than changed his own.
"It was just a day of chaos and fear and terror, but also of hope towards the end," said Cerqueira.
It's his story from 11 years ago that brought Cerqueira before a crowd of hundreds Tuesday night at a Junior League of Raleigh meeting.
Cerqueira was a 22-year-old, recent N.C. State graduate working a job on the 81st floor of the North Tower when terror struck.
"I remember looking up and seeing a cascade of smoke and debris, which come to find out was the top of my building," said Cerqueira. "Shortly thereafter, the other plane hit the building -- the other building -- and it was a race to get down the stairs before the buildings eventually collapsed. My boss and I found a woman in a wheelchair on the 68th floor. We picked her up and put her in an emergency wheelchair and carried her down the rest of the way."
A doctor captured video of Cerqueira in action.
"I thought I was watching myself die," said Cerqueira.
However, he survived.
Aside from appearances in magazines, on Oprah and a book of his own, Cerqueira said his choice to help someone that day taught him a deep, but simple lesson about giving. It's a lesson he shares and lives over and over.
"That sense of commitment to serving somebody other than yourself is actually helpful to your emotional, spiritual and mental health," said Cerqueira.
Cerqueira said he reaped as much from the incident as the woman he helped save.
He said that is the essence of what we can all take away from the day of service that is recognized across the country to honor those who didn't survive.