A distant view of the Twin Towers in New York on fire the day of September 11th

The Twin Towers in flames on 9/11

Brad Rickerby/Reuters

The Day That Changed America

Twenty years later, a New York City firefighter remembers 9/11.

Courtesy of Gregg Hansson

The morning of September 11, 2001, was sunny in New York City. Firefighter Gregg Hansson had just started his shift when a call came into his station. A plane had struck one of the Twin Towers. The two 110-floor skyscrapers were part of a huge office complex called the World Trade Center.

Hansson and five other firefighters hopped into their engine. They arrived on the scene in minutes. Thick black smoke was pouring from a huge hole high up in the building. At the time, people thought a small plane had accidentally hit it. But terrorists had hijacked, or taken over, a jumbo jet filled with passengers. They crashed it into the tower on purpose.

Panicked people ran from the building. But Hansson and hundreds of other first responders did the opposite.

Into the Tower

In the lobby, Hansson learned that the elevators weren’t working. To reach the blaze, firefighters would have to take the stairs. And they’d each be loaded with 75 to 100 pounds of gear. After an hour, Hansson reached the 35th floor.

“It’s exhausting to carry all that weight,” he explains. “We were drenched in sweat.”

Suddenly, he heard a radio call: “Mayday, get out of the building!” Seconds later, the tower began to shake violently. The other tower had been struck by another plane about an hour earlier. And it had just crumbled to the ground.

A Race Against Time

Hansson started down the stairs as quickly as he could. On the way, he helped others drag a man who couldn’t walk out of the building. The group safely made it out of the tower.

Then Hansson heard a deafening roar. The tower he had just exited was collapsing too. Everything went pitch-black. A gust of wind swept over him as he was pelted by debris.

Just a few seconds later, all was calm. Hansson could not believe he was still alive. But dust and thick black smoke filled his lungs.

“It felt as if someone stuck a sock in my throat,” he says.

In the distance, he saw a flashlight. Two police officers had stayed behind near a staircase. Hansson crawled toward the light to safety.

MARK LENNIHAN/AP Images

Firefighters search the area after the Twin Towers collapsed.

A Tragic Day

Sadly, many others didn’t make it out alive. In total, nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks that day, which is known as 9/11 (see sidebar). That includes more than 400 firefighters, police officers, and paramedics in New York City.

Twenty years later, Hansson is still a firefighter. He also volunteers for the 9/11 Tribute Museum. There, he tells visitors about the bravery of others. But he doesn’t call himself a hero.

“My job is to save people, so it’s not heroic to me,” he says. “It’s what I signed up to do.”

1. Why did Hansson run into the tower when other people were running out?

2. What specific details about Hansson’s experience on 9/11 does the article include?

3. What can you learn from the map on page 4?

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