Rick Doran, of Aiken, was one of the firefighters who risked everything to save lives on 9/11. (WRDW-TV / Sept. 8, 2011)
News 12 First at Five / Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It's hard to even imagine the confusion and destruction surrounding firefighters on Sept. 11, 2001.
Rick Doran doesn't have to imagine it; he lived it.
"A lot of people lost their lives that day, both uniformed and non-uniformed people," Doran said. "And we have to find a way to always remember that."
Doran was wearing a uniform that tragic day. As a former New York City firefighter, he was rushing into the collapsing towers while others were rushing out.
This weekend marks the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in which 2,819 people died. Former New York City firefighter Doran was among the first rescuers to arrive at the World Trade Center.
He lives in Aiken now, but today he takes us back to New York 10 years ago.
"We knew there was a mission, we didn't know how large a mission it was going to be," Doran said.
Doran was at home on that fateful Tuesday until another firefighter called and told him to switch on the TV.
"I saw that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I was shocked that on a beautiful, bright 90-degree day that somebody couldn't see the building," he said.
As part of Rescue 4, a Special Operations Unit, Doran knew his day off had just turned very busy. He picked up several other off-duty firefighters from his company. The group stopped a public bus, told everyone to get off and ordered the driver to take them toward the smoking Twin Towers.
On their way, a toll booth operator attempted to stop the frantic heroes, telling Doran no one was allowed to come into the city.
"We had a discussion, I guess you can say, with the guy at the gate. I gave him a couple of options about what would be in his best interest to do. He finally obliged, and we continued on."
Doran believes those five minutes they were stalled at the toll booth may have saved their lives in the end as 92 other firefighters from his Special Operations unit died that day.
He described the scene as the rescue group pushed closer to the North Tower: "There were some people that were trapped up about the eighth floor. We could see them -- the building was totally on fire. We were trying to find gear to get to them, ladders or anything. Unfortunately, we never made it to them."
Doran realized early on their desperate rescue mission had become a recovery effort.
"We made it a secondary goal to bring as many [victims] home as we could in any condition we could. I went to several funerals where there was only a bone maybe ... that big," he said, referring to half of his pinky finger. "But to those families that meant everything in the world."
"Life" magazine captured an emotional moment amid the frenzy. One of their covers shows a profile of Doran overlooking Ground Zero with an American Flag at his side.
He didn't even realize the picture had been snapped.
"It's a flag that had been handed to me by Mayor Giuliani and the fire commissioner," Doran said. "They told me to post it somewhere."
Doran planted the first American flag at Ground Zero, a first sign of unity and hope in the middle of utter disaster. "Life" recently republished that same cover this year for the 10th anniversary.
His neighbor noticed the magazine cover at a grocery store and called him.
"Low and behold, it was the same photo," Doran said.
Doran still has the helmet he wore for much of his 23-year career, including the one he wore on 9/11. The collection of scratches and burns on it represent a day he will never forget.
"I lost a lot of friends. People lost a lot of their family. Remember, there are 1,122 people who still haven't been found."
Doran's goal is to share his story to honor the 343 firefighters and paramedics who died. He insists all of the men and women killed in the senseless attacks should never be forgotten.
"I'll make sure of it," he said.
Doran's son has followed in his father's footsteps. He is now a firefighter in New York and bears his dad's badge number.
The former firefighter reflected: "Things can go in an absolute second. That day in New York, 2,000 people lost their lives in 12 seconds as those buildings fell. Cherish your life, your family, your faith. And move on."