AUSTIN (KXAN) — Saturday marks the 20-year anniversary of when America was forever changed.
For many of those who responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the memories are still vivid.
Austinite Mark Loeffler remembers first what he saw, recalling, “My first view of Ground Zero after September 11th was from a train. You just see the big smoking hole in the landscape.”
Just as strongly engrained in his memory — the smell.
He says when he got off the train across the river in Brooklyn, “That’s the first time I think it really hit me. You smell that smoke, and it was not normal smoke, It wasn’t like a campfire or anything like that. It was acrid smoke.”
Twenty years later, his brain hasn’t forgotten the scent.
“It’s still that smell that triggers all the memories and the feelings and the sounds.”
KXAN first interviewed Loeffler as he was trying to leave the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. As an American Red Cross volunteer, he requested to leave just hours after the attack. However, it was two days before any planes were cleared to begin flying out of Austin again.
Loeffler was on the first flight out of ABIA with about 20 others on Sept. 13, 2001.
Two decades later, as he looked through photos and mementos from the three weeks he served at Ground Zero, he says that time marked one of the most significant of his life.
“Very few times in our life do we get the opportunity to truly be a part of something important, and that was 9/11 for me,” he said. “It was important for our country. It was important for me. I think it helped form a lot of who I was, who I became.”
He hangs on to some of his most grim memories of the eight stories of rubble he and others called “the pile.”
“If you went into a certain area, if you walk back out, you had to wash your boots. And, you know, there was debris everywhere. There’s dust everywhere. And I remember asking the guy, ‘Why do we have to wash our boots?’ He said, ‘Because you’re walking through human remains.'”
He now shares the gravity of what he experienced with his 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter, giving them a firsthand account of what most of their friends may ever only learn from a history book.
“If there’s a message that I can pass on to my kids, it would be that I want them to live a life of service, and just live by the phrase, ‘Happy to serve.'”
He says in the midst of all the destruction and heartbreak, even those who weren’t on the frontlines found a way to serve him and other volunteers and first responders.
He keeps two photos of New Yorkers lining the West Side Highway, something he says they did for weeks, holding signs of encouragement for those cleaning up one of the darkest times of American history.
“That, to me, is one of the strongest memories, because we focus so much on the tragedy about 9/11, but what 9/11 revealed was the heart of America,” Loeffler said. “And that’s truly what I think I’ll always remember, is it revealed the best of America.”