CAPE CORAL, Fla. — 21 years ago, thousands of people woke up, ready for work, on a beautiful fall day in New York City. People described crystal blue skies, with not a cloud in sight.
Before noon that day, a nation was changed forever.
"I happened to see a lot of people looking up, pointing," said Russ Finkelson, a retired supervisor for the New York Department of Sanitation. "When I stopped my car and got out, I noticed one of the buildings was on fire."
That building was the north tower of The World Trade Center, which had been struck by a hijacked commercial plane, American Flight 11 at 8:46 a.m.
From then on, Finkelson was an eyewitness to the destruction that followed — from the impact of United Airlines Flight 175 hitting the South Tower at 9:03 a.m., to the collapse of that building 56 minutes later, and the collapse of the North Tower a short time later.
"It was completely horrible to see the cloud of concrete dust," Finkelson recalled.
Arguably more traumatic to him and the throngs of citizens watching, however, was the sight of people —fellow New Yorkers, fellow human beings—falling from the windows of the Twin Towers.
"They were falling out of the building," Finkelson said, speaking as if still in disbelief. "I don’t know if they were jumping out of the building, but I was there when they were coming out of the building, falling."
Finkelson watched everything from the roof of his work building, recalling "I was stationary that day; we couldn't move."
Once all his workers were accounted for, he went home. The next day, Finkelson says, he was ready to do whatever was needed to help.
"The first week, I was down there. I used to volunteer after work," he said.
Breaking out a photo album, Finkelson shared how getting to Ground Zero was no easy task. From 14th St. South, Manhattan was closed down.
"I used to hitchhike with an ambulance, or a fire truck, or even the national guard," Finkelson recalled as he thumbed through pages of photos.
For four hours a day, Finkelson would work as part of the "bucket brigade," clearing debris, while trying to hear the voices of people trapped within what looked like mountains of concrete and steel.
On the seventh day of volunteering, Finkelson was told he could work at Ground Zero.
"They made me what they called a 'horn coordinator,' so I was in charge of 45 dump trucks," he said. "There was a whole other cleaning operation which was in charge of men that were sweeping the streets, [and] women who were out there with mechanical brooms, flushers."
For a year and a half, Finkelson would go to Ground Zero, assisting in the cleanup.
21 years later, he’s reminded of that traumatic period in photos and a few personal mementos.
"I wrote on the top of my helmet, 'Never forgive, never forget.' Now it’s my tattoo."
To date, 110 members of the New York City Department of Sanitation have died from illnesses related to the 9/11 aftermath and cleanup. Friday, the department held their annual memorial service before a plaque memorializing the names of those lost.