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Retired Davidson Officer Reflects On Being A 9/11 First Responder

9/11 memorial
Iago Godoy
A rose sits in the 9/11 memorial in New York City.

Many of us who remember the events of Sept. 11, 2001, can hardly believe that 20 years has gone by. We remember where we were, who we were with. We remember the confusion and disbelief, the shock when the towers fell, and the harrowing images of New Yorkers running through Lower Manhattan in terror.

In the midst of the chaos, there were those who ran toward the scene. They're first responders and others who may have left New York over the past 20 years, but still carry the memories of the city and that day with them.

Among them is Vernon Siders Jr. He was an officer for the New York Police Department on 9/11. He's now a retired police officer for the town of Davidson. He lives in Mooresville, and he joined WFAE on the 20th anniversary of the attacks to reflect on his experience and how's its changed him.

Nick de la Canal: So, 20 years ago, you were in New York, employed as a police officer for the NYPD, and I understand you had just finished working the overnight shift when your mother called and told you to turn on the news. What do you remember from there?

Vernon Siders Jr.

Vernon Siders Jr.: I remember that she called me on my cellphone to tell me that there was an accident in New York City where a plane struck one of the Twin Towers. I remember getting home and walking into my bedroom. I turned on the television, and just as I turned on the television, I see the second plane strike the second tower, and right then and there, I knew we were under attack.

I called my mother and she told me that my sister was there, and she hasn't heard from her, and she was worried, so that increased, you know, sense of urgency to get there even more so.

De la Canal: And so you drove back into the city?

Siders Jr.: Yes. I made it to Queens and decided to park along one of the public parking areas to just kind of go over the bridge and make my way down to — at the time they said everybody was meeting at the Jacob Javits Center to carpool down to the Ground Zero area.

De la Canal: And I guess you jumped on a bus?

Siders Jr.: Yes. So a lot of the public buses at that time were only taking down law enforcement, you know, all first responders, and they said they needed a lot of iron workers. So we were all piling up on these buses that were shipping us down to Ground Zero.

Once I got down there, it was right at Ground Zero, right in front of a church that I remember looking at and seeing flames everywhere. The trees were burning. The headstones on the graves were burning. I mean, it was like little pits of fire everywhere, and I thought, you know, this is probably what hell looks like.

De la Canal: What did you do the rest of that day?

Siders Jr.: All I did was get in where I could fit in — help move things out of the way. We had set up some bucket brigades, and we were just pulling things out to try to get to where we believed the people were. We did it through the night. I stayed there probably at least three days before I just was too exhausted to continue.

De la Canal: Throughout all of this, were able to get in touch with your sister, or were you ever able to learn anymore about where she was?

" ... It was like little pits of fire everywhere, and I thought, you know, this is probably what hell looks like."
Vernon Siders Jr., on seeing the site at 9/11 immediately after the attacks

Siders Jr.: Not until after the third day. I at some point on that third day, I collapsed. Somebody removed me from that area and propped me up next to a building that's right across the street from the World Trade Center, and when I came to, somebody at that time was able to contact my mom and find out that my sister actually did get away from the area. So they encouraged me, said "Hey, look. You just need to — you need to go and get some rest. Go home."

De la Canal: I mentioned many people have moved away from the city over these past 20 years. Vernon, you're one of them. How have the events of 9/11 connected you to the city still?

Siders Jr.: That's a great question. Two years ago I went back to Ground Zero for the first time and kind of retraced my steps — all the places where I was at. It was very emotional. It was very moving. My anxiety was through the roof. I mean, as a result, I'm diagnosed with PTSD.

I could still smell the jet fuel burning. I could still hear, at times, hear people screaming. Twice a day — at least how we periodically check our watches for the time, or our phones for the time — I always manage to look at it when it says 9:11, and so it's — it's with me.

De la Canal: How do you think this experience has changed you as a person?

Siders Jr.: I'm more proud to be an American more than anything. The events of 9/11 has opened up my heart and my mind to receive people from all walks of life. My drive has always been to work with others, to work together, to accept all of the different cultures that come.

It's just made me more of a sensitive person. It's made me more concerned with the people that are suffering in all walks of life, and how to help them. It's definitely changed me.

De la Canal: Vernon Siders. He was among those first responders at the World Trade Center 20 years ago. He now lives in Mooresville. Vernon Siders, thank you so much for joining us.

Siders Jr.: Thank you so much for having me. It's an honor.

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