RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - For many people, the painful memories of 9/11 will last a lifetime - and especially for those who had firsthand experience with the rescue efforts, like Leonard Mitchell.
Today, Mitchell works at Richmond International Airport, but 19 years ago he worked at a correctional facility in New Jersey.
On Friday morning, Mitchell patrolled the terminals and corridors of that airport as a TSA officer.
But on this morning back in 2001, he recalls "the CNN newsflash came on, it looked like a building was on fire. I wasn’t sure if it was a news report, actually or a movie or something.”
He was at home back in North Brunswick, New Jersey, waking up to the news report. It was in the same report where he says he saw the plane strike the second tower, and reality set in. His first instinct was to call his wife at the time.
“I couldn’t get through to her. All the lines were blocked up - everyone was trying to do it a the same time," he said.
Luckily, she and his kids were OK, but Mitchell’s second instinct after the tragedy was to help.
″It happened on a Tuesday. By Friday, a contingent of us volunteered our own time to help out at Ground Zero."
For three days, he and some coworkers searched through the rubble of the Twin Towers for any survivors. Then for three months afterward, they finished their regular day jobs and traveled to Manhattan at night to volunteer at hospitals.
He admits that those months were not easy.
“In fact, I was having nightmares about it for a while. I envisioned all kinds of things happening, it was a pretty scary situation because you were there, you didn’t know if another attack was looming or something,” he said.
He says he worked every Sept. 11 since the attacks, and he came into work Friday - even though he was supposed to be off. He chose to carry on as if it was any other September day.
“It’s always this time of year; they show photos of the towers falling, the planes hitting, people running in the streets, and it just opens up a lot of wounds that are still here," he said.
Mitchell said he hasn’t been back to Ground Zero since his time volunteering. He says he had driven by but never set foot. He says he hopes to one-day “muster” up the nerve to be able to re-visit the site.
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