It’s been two decades since the day that changed America forever.

On Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 3,000 people died after Islamic extremists tied to Al Qaeda hijacked four jetliners and used them as missiles.

NBC 4’s Colleen Marshall and photographer Charles Busby went to New York City 20 years ago to cover the attack on the World Trade Center and the aftermath.

To mark the 20th anniversary, they went back to New York and all this week will share the stories of 9/11 – 20 years later.

COLUMBUS (WCMH) – We are just a day away from the ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks that claimed nearly 3,000 lives.

Another 6,000 people were injured that day, but some of the thousands of first responders who rushed in to help are still paying a price for their bravery.

Hundreds of first responders died on 9/11, but thousands of them rushed to the World Trade Center hoping to save lives.

Only 18 people were safely pulled from the debris. Then firefighters spend weeks, months, combing through that toxic rubble. Some of them, like firefighter Lt. Steve Casquarelli, are still paying a price for that.

The planes hit that clear Tuesday morning and first responders did what they do: drove into danger.

“What we saw in front of us was a wall of that, of a cloud, that very light gray powdery cloud that was all of the smoke and the pulverized debris from the building,” Casquarelli recalls 20 years after the fact.

Casquarelli was one of the hundreds of firefighters, police, and medics at what would soon be called Ground Zero.

“I was stunned at how something so big, which was the same height as this building here to the roof, could be reduced to something so little,” he said. “There was a 110-story building that was, that was reduced to approximately 10 floors of debris.”

 Two hundred and sixty-five died on board the four jetliners that were used that day as missiles, while 2,606 died at the World Trade Center.

Casquarelli was there when the last survivor was pulled from the rubble.

“By 12;30 the following day, on the 12th, we did find the last person and the 18th individual,” he said. “We pulled them out, and after that, it turned into recovery. We really thought there would be more, especially down below, but there wasn’t.”

They started the recovers of body parts, for weeks, months, sifting through toxic debris.

“The best way I can explain it is that it affected all five of my senses,” Casquarelli said. “Because you can see it, you can actually hear the noises or breathing. It was difficult. It was the burning sensation in your eyes, your sense of touch, really.”

So far, more than 200 firefighters who worked on what was called the pile have died of illnesses related to the attacks.  Hundreds more, like Casquarelli, will never be the same.

“It was discovered I had lost about 37-38 percent of my lung capacity,” he said.

Within a year of the 9/11 attack, his damaged lungs forced him to take early retirement.

He had reported for work on Sept. 10 and made it home on Sept. 12.

“Sept. 12 was me and my wife’s wedding anniversary, our 20th,” he said. “So we never really got a chance to celebrate it, you know, but it was, it was, you know, we did what we could.”

Casquarelli said just making it home that day was enough of a celebration for his wife.

“I remember when I walked in the door, it sounded like a stampede of elephants coming down the stairway, and we just embraced in an extremely long hug for quite a while,” he said.

Now, Casquarelli wants his children and the young people who visit to remember what happened that day.

“One day, we aren’t going to be here and we are going to have to rely on them to tell that story,” he said. “Never forget. Never forget.”

Casquarelli volunteers at the 9/11 Family Tribute Museum. Both the National 9/11 Museum and Memorial and the Family Tribute Museum were hit hard financially by the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. If you would like to contribute, click on one of the links below.