9/11: Remembering the search for hope 20 years later

MANASQUAN, New Jersey -- 20 years after the tragic events of 9/11, three members of New Jersey's Task Force 1 (NJ-TF1)- one of 28 federal FEMA Urban Search and Rescue teams in the country, reflect on the life-changing experience assisting in the recovery mission at Ground Zero.

Kevin Morrissey, Gary Breuer, and Kathe Conlon, three New Jersey first responders, look back at the arduous task of searching for life through the rubble as well as the lessons learned two decades after the terrorist attacks that changed a nation.

"When you turned the corner and you saw not only what was there, but what wasn't there anymore, you realize this wasn't a localized collapse. It took your breath away," said Gary Breuer, Task Force Leader with NJ-TF1.

For over twenty days after the attacks, the NJ-TF1 - which was stationed at the Jacob Javits Center, worked tirelessly around the clock to find survivors and bring families the closure they were desperately seeking.

Related: 'Eyewitness to 9/11: Behind the Lens' reveals untold stories, rare video of America's darkest day

"The hardest part for any search and rescue team is to get to a point where the decision has to be made that you're going from rescue to recovery," said Kathe Conlon, Medical Unit Nurse with the NJ-TF1.

20 years may have passed, but the memories of devastation and death are engraved in the minds of each responder, who have managed to cope and overcome the psychological toll of this experience in their own personal way.

"The incident kind of dictates where you have to focus your energy. If by day 10, you're still looking, given some of the conditions we saw there, if you're still looking for a live find, you're not going to be able to deal with it psychologically.

The events of 9/11 not only transformed the way search and rescue teams respond to catastrophes but served as a learning experience for the disasters that followed in the years after the attacks.

The implementation of improvement plans to the purchase of new equipment and the mandatory wearing of respirators were all lessons born through the experience of responding to 9/11.

"Our team is the best of the best that New Jersey has to offer. I find comfort knowing that these people will come together regardless of the time of day, where it is, the weather, and work themselves to exhaustion to bring it to a closure, whatever that closure is at a building collapse or a hurricane," said Kevin Morrissey, NJ-TF1 Program Manager.

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