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20 years after the 9/11 attacks, Buffalo Fire and Police members reflect on time at Ground Zero

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Posted at 5:17 AM, Sep 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-10 07:52:35-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — In the aftermath of 9/11, members of the Buffalo Fire Department and Buffalo Police Department went directly to New York City to help at Ground Zero.

To this day, 20 years later, they still remember what it was first like to see the devastation first-hand.

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Buffalo Fire and Buffalo Police crews at Ground Zero in NYC

"I remember walking into that scene," said retired Buffalo Police Detective Phil Torre. "It was like Mars. It was surreal, quiet. I just could not believe what I was looking at."

"It was a pile of rubble. It was quiet. There wasn't a whole lot of talking going on," echoed Buffalo Fire Lieutenant Gene Margerum.

But before long, they found themselves working side-by-side with crews from New York City.

"Some chief said, 'I want everybody in this area to follow me.' And we happened to be in that area," explained Buffalo Fire Captain Tony Liberatore. "And the next thing you know we're on the pile helping out. And within 15 minutes we were working on the first body we were recovering."

They dug for hours, then days, on their hands and knees. They lined up with hundreds of other first responders, and passed buckets of rubble down a line. At one point they thought they'd be forced to stop, but the training they had from Buffalo allowed them to keep going.

"There was an iron worker who would cut all the steel in our way, and then we could continue on," said Captain Liberatore. "And the iron worker that was working with us said, 'Listen I've been here 24 hours, I've got to go home and sleep.' Dropped his tools. The chief said, 'I guess we're done.' Then Mike Biasillo who was the Captain of Ladder 4 at the time picked up the torch and said, 'Chief, what do you need cut?' And because of that we could continue working throughout that night."

"These guys were all trained on that stuff, and they just picked up the equipment. The saws, the jaws - and it kept us working. Kept us working through that night," echoed Retired Buffalo Police Lieutenant Mark Michalek.

Each day the crew from Buffalo would trek back to Ground Zero. And each day they passed hundreds of people as they headed there.

"There were people on our way in -- before they put up the fences -- that were begging you to find their family members," said Margerum. "And give you pictures. And crying, and holding onto you. And begging please find them. And we weren't finding anybody. And that's hard. And you want to find somebody. That's what we are trained to do. You're trained to help people. Things have changed in this country, especially for police, and I'm going to say that on camera. It's awful. Cops care. They want to help people. We are all here to help people. And to not be able to find someone and to have to go back when we're walking out and they're hoping your family members - you're gonna come out with them - and you're not."

Buffalo Fire Lieutenant Gene Margerum at Ground Zero.

Even though they weren't able to rescue anyone, they came back each day to dig and search, always with a glimmer of hope that eventually dimmed.

"I didn't feel like we were accomplishing anything because we didn't save a life. That's what we do. On our dive team, police, fire department, we save a life that's what we work for," said Retired Police Captain Al Liberatore. "We didn't save anybody."

But he says he eventually understood the impact they had on the other first responders who were there.

"As time went by I realized that what we did was we lifted their spirits. They saw brother police and fire and they didn't know who we are, they just knew we were from Buffalo and we were there holding their spirit up."

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Buffalo Fire Captain Tony Liberatore and his brother, retired Buffalo Police Captain Al Liberatore.

Each of the members stayed as long as they could. They all came back to Buffalo with an experience that would forever shape who they were, and forever impact our community.

"Firemen were training more. We were bringing new things in. And we realized terrorist acts could happen within our borders. So we became better. And I honestly feel like the American people started appreciating the policeman, firemen and soldiers," said Tony Liberatore.

Twenty years later, they look back on what happened and the impact it had. Gene Margerum had a six-year-old son at the time of the attacks. Now, he's in the Air Force and spent time in Afghanistan.

"He's one of the people in his generation to actually see the towers. And he was recently part of the evacuation mission in Kabul. With the Air Force. And I'm proud of him. He called me from there and said, 'Dad, you started this and I'm finishing it. We're doing the bookends,'" he said.

Buffalo Fire Captain Patrick Lalley was a young firefighter when he went to Ground Zero to help. Now he has two little girls and wants to make sure they know what happened to our country that day.

"I give them pictures around this year to take to their class to remember what went on. Because we all promised we'd never forget. And I think so many have, unfortunately. But I want them to celebrate the heroes. And not us at all. The people in NYC, and it wasn't just police, fire, first responders -- the everyday people who helped everyone out down there. The amazing American people," he said.