WILMINGTON, N.C. (WNCN) — September 11, 2001, started out as a beautiful day in Manhattan, but it quickly turned into one of the darkest days in history.
For William Byrnes, the terror attacks are forever etched in his mind no matter how much time passes.
“I still have nightmares every now and then that it happened. Every now and then, I still smell the jet fuel and the burning of bodies and all that,” said Byrnes. “It’s a comfort to know that it’s way in the past, but for people like me, first responders, it feels like this happened yesterday.”
At the time, Byrnes was a patrol officer with the New York Police Department, working out of the 107th Precinct in Queens.
“It was actually my day off when 9/11 happened and I was babysitting my twin daughters and like everybody else, we were watching it on TV,” Byrnes said.
It wasn’t long after the second plane hit the South Tower that Byrnes was called in to help.
“We actually got there 10 minutes after the second tower dropped so there was a lot of smoke in the air,” Byrnes said. “We were trying to go towards where the Twin Towers was, but we couldn’t see two feet in front of us. We didn’t even know where we were going. We were bumping into everything and then, we started seeing people running towards us, some of them injured, so we took some of those people to safety.”
The call for help turned into a rush to find survivors.
“We were at Ground Zero, and at that point, we didn’t even have hats, we didn’t have anything to breathe into, we were covered head to toe in the white soot,” Byrnes said. “We were moving concrete and we were trying to move as much debris as we could because we thought people were trapped underneath.”
Byrnes says the days that followed were long and the search was intense. But slowly hope dwindled and that’s when the magnitude of the tragedy set in for him.
“I couldn’t believe it and I went into like a small depression just like I guess a lot of people did and since then, I have been diagnosed with depression, PTSD, and survivor’s guilt,” he said.
Byrnes knew five first responders who died that day, people he called friends. In the years that followed, he knew at least seven others who passed away due to WTC-related health conditions.
“To this day, I still feel it but what keeps me going is my daughters,” Brynes said. “They’re my life and they helped me through a lot of stuff not even knowing that they’re doing it.”
In 2013, Byrnes retired from the NYPD and moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, two years later. It wasn’t until recently that he went back to New York with his wife and now 21-year-old daughters to visit the 9/11 Memorial.
“Not to say that they made me go there, but they kind of made me go there,” Byrnes said. “I didn’t want to do that because there’s a lot of memories there. For the first time there, I felt at ease. Even though I didn’t want to be there, I felt at ease going there.”
Bynes now has a tattoo on his arm to serve as a symbol of his work that day and all the lives lost.
“Everybody pitched in that day, civilians, police, firefighters, everybody and I thank everybody who came from other cities around America,” Byrnes said.
“We might have been hit but we’re still getting up and we’re still fighting, still the best country and the best city. New York is still the best city ever,” he said.
Byrnes hopes to take another trip to New York in 2022 to visit the 9/11 Memorial again.