Remembering 9/11 with a First Responder

This firefighter's life changed forever when he arrived at Ground Zero just after the South Tower collapsed. Here, Richard Alles discusses what he saw on 9/11.

Beacon to the 9/11 community

On September 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Firefighter Richard Alles had just finished a 24-hour shift as chief of the FDNY's Battalion 58 before the first plane hit the North Tower. Thousands of emergency responders rushed to Ground Zero and dug through rubble and debris searching for survivors. This went on from the day of the attack until May 2002. Years later, it was confirmed that the fumes responders inhaled were carcinogenic — and in many cases, lethal. 99% of exposed firefighters reported at least 1 new respiratory problem after working at Ground Zero according to

“The TV was on the news and the events of the day were unfolding. Initially it sounded like it was a commuter plane had crashed into one of the twin towers. While we were on the way over there, a second plane had hit and it took us awhile to muster, a good couple of hours of getting manpower, to get equipment, to be able to operate there. So, by the time we left, I already knew that both towers had collapsed. I arrived on the scene on September 11th about 20 minutes after the second collapse. So mentally I was prepared for the magnitude of the devastation. But it's one thing to have information and another thing to visually see it and try to process it. And it's very difficult. It's almost it's surreal,” recalls the fireman.

After retiring, Alles lobbied for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which provides benefits and economic support to 9/11 survivors and their families. It received national attention after comedian Jon Stewart’s testimony before Congress, urging them to extend funding. In July 2019, Congress passed a bill that extends funding through 2090, which President Trump signed into law. After years of debate, construction on the 9/11 memorial began in 2006, and finally opened in 2011. Alles says he wants the stories of 9/11 survivors to be remembered because for many, the emotional and physical burdens are lifelong.