INDIANAPOLIS — Sept. 11, 2001. It's a day etched in the memory of the Program Manager of Indiana Task Force 1.
“You tend to get more emotional around this time of year,” Tom Neal, Indiana Task Force 1 Program Manager said. “It’s the memories. It’s the people that we lost.”
Neal was deployed to Ground Zero with 61 other members and four canines. They arrived the day after the world changed forever.
The memories replay like it happened yesterday, including the conversations with fellow first responders.
“The smoke and just the debris blowing around the site,” Neal said. “What we were hearing was sons looking for fathers, fathers looking for sons or daughters looking for fathers.”
The 12-hour shifts turned into 18, 19 or 20 hours sifting through the rubble where the Twin Towers once stood.
"Rescue. Recover. Rebuild." Those were the words captured in one of Neal's photos from that time. The words were written in the soot covering a storefront, rang true, as each trip taken from the task force's headquarter at the Jacob Javitz Center to Ground Zero.
"No matter what time of the day it was, there were New Yorkers lining the streets with signs, clapping, cheering us on," Neal recalled. "They were giving us motivation."
Neal explained how the team held on to hope, much like they did during the Surfside condo collapse in Florida this summer.
"Seeing just the sheer magnitude of the destruction of the buildings, you quickly lost a lot of that hope," Neal said.
On Sept. 20, 2001, Indiana Task Force 1 returned home.
"To have that welcome I think was overwhelming for a lot of us to be a part of," Neal said. And it still is.
Nearly 3,000 innocent souls were taken that Tuesday morning, but the loss has not stopped.
"We've lost four members," Neal said.
Neal explained that four Indiana Task Force 1 members lost their battles to 9/11-related cancers in the last 20 years.
"We all came back with what we all called the Ground Zero cough," he said. "You couldn't get away from the dust, the concrete dust."
It is a sacrifice Neal said that the brave men and women would not change.
Neal has visited the 9/11 Memorial several times in the years since. Many buildings, parks and streets have changed, but in Neal's words, it remains "truly hallowed ground."
"The scars in aspect of 9/11 have kind of healed physically, but mentally and emotionally, they will always be there," he said.
On the 20th anniversary of the attacks, Neal wants Hoosiers to remember this: "We truly need to take time to recognize the men and women that serve out own communities every day that put their lives on the line every day, so it's not just the big events that occur across the country we respond to, but it's still that we are just a part of your local agencies that respond to your local needs on an everyday basis."