Two years later

N.Y. firefighter recalls Sept. 11, 2001; officials look at progress

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— Kevin Nerney, 45, moved to Steamboat Springs after retiring from the Fire Department of New York on Aug. 24, 2001. Eighteen days later, 343 of his colleagues were killed while trying to save people from the burning World Trade Center towers.

He knew more than 50 of the fallen firefighters personally. All the firefighters in his company were killed, except for one who drove and manned the firetruck.

Though Nerney was retired, he was working that day, building his home in the Silver Spur subdivision. His wife called and said she had heard a plane hit the World Trade Center. He thought it was a two-seater -- "no big deal."

He didn't find out what had really happened until about 4 p.m. that day. He spent the rest of the afternoon trying to call friends back home, wondering if they were safe.

Nerney would have worked on Sept. 11, 2001, if he were still on the force. He felt fortunate to be safe. A friend mentioned maybe he should have been there, so he could have helped people, but Nerney said, "There's no way I'm going to live the rest of my life with that guilt -- no way."

Nerney had no intention of letting guilt get a hold of him. As soon as New York airports reopened, he took the first flight.

Nerney spent the next 10 days sifting through the rubble at ground zero. It was all too reminiscent of the first World Trade Center bombing eight years earlier, when Nerney sifted through those ashes, pulling out bodies dead and alive.

"It was a typical nightmare," Nerney said of the 1993 bombing. "People were running and screaming. It was just a nightmare."

By the time Nerney was back on the job in New York in September 2001, most of the screaming had subsided. Other firefighters asked: "What are you doing here?"

"What do you think I'm doing here?" Nerney responded.

For the next couple of months, Nerney coughed up mucus blackened by the ash, smoke and debris from the site.

Now, two years later, Nerney looks back at the terrorist attacks and the loss of his friends. His perception has not changed.

"I think about those guys every day of the year, not just on the anniversary," Nerney said. "The service those guys gave renews your faith in mankind, despite what (the terrorists) did."

Nerney said an online poll got him thinking. The poll asked: "Do you feel safer now?"

"I thought, 'We're vulnerable. If they want us, they can have us,'" Nerney said. "That's the price of a free state. We can't live in fear. We've got to live for today, for tomorrow might not be here."

Nerney gave several memorial speeches in Steamboat last year but is not scheduled for any appearances this year. He said it is not because people have forgotten but because it is time to move on.

The airline industry also is trying to move on from post-attack air traffic slump.

Jim Parker, director of Yampa Valley Regional Airport, said air traffic is almost back to normal.

"I think that, primarily, the numbers are not as high as pre-9/11, because it put a fear factor in some people," Parker said. "It may be a year or two before we get back to pre-9/11 standards on the national level."

Locally, after Sept. 11, there was a lot of concern for the 2001 ski season, Parker said, but the tourists continued to come. There was only a slight decrease, as overall traffic was relatively the same in terms of history, Parker said.

Security is not being heightened in light of the anniversary, Parker said.

Local law enforcement agencies and emergency response crews also are not taking any extra precautions in light of the two-year anniversary.

Steamboat Spring Director of Public Safety Services J.D. Hays said the county has an emergency response plan in case of a catastrophic event, but federal agencies have not reported a threat of any kind.

Routt County Emergency Management Director Chuck Vale also said there are no special precautions to be taken today, but "we haven't let our guard down," he said.

"We're as prepared as a small rural community could be," Vale said. "Our emergency response crews are dedicated and well-prepared. I'm very comfortable we're all working well together.

"My job is to work hard and worry hard, and I do that all the time, but the risk is there every day."

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