In the predawn hours a day after the World Trade Center collapse, Nassau police Sgt. Richard Doerler dug through the rubble searching for any signs of life.

Picking through the debris, he soon found badly injured Port Authority police Lt. John McLaughlin, buried amid the crushed concrete and steel. He pulled the semiconscious man to safety.

Thursday, more than 10 years after the attacks, Doerler returned to Ground Zero for the first time to take part in a ceremony honoring the rescue efforts of Nassau County first responders.

Doerler and several hundred Nassau police and fire personnel who responded after the attacks gathered at the pool where the south tower once stood. A wreath was laid and two Nassau police officers sounded "Taps." A rabbi and a priest who are Nassau police chaplains took turns saying prayers.

It was no accident that Thursday's visit to Ground Zero was the first for Doerler since the day he pulled McLaughlin to safety.

"I didn't want to come back here until the site was completed," he said. "But I'm not the hero. They are."

As he spoke, Doerler gestured to the south pool, where the names of the first responders who died on 9/11 are engraved.

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For his bravery 10 years ago, Doerler was given an American flag Thursday from the Port Authority.

He said when he came upon McLauglin that morning, the Port Authority police lieutenant was fading in and out of consciousness and his legs were still buried rubble.

"I was in the hole from 3 a.m. to sunrise when we found John. He was trapped and we had to lay on top of him so we could free up his legs," Doerler said. "He was conscious, but in a lot of pain. But he made it."

To this day, the two remain friends.

Retired Nassau County Det. Joe Lore, 59, also returned for the first time since he was pressed into service on Sept. 12, 2001, to photograph the devastation for criminal investigators.

With his two granddaughters, wife and daughter by his side, Lore said it was hard to describe seeing the site of such horror transformed into a place of introspection and remembrance.

"It's very emotional," said Lore, adding that seeing the memorial nearly left him speechless. "It's beautiful. They did some job."