When Ronald King was 8 years old and growing up in Guyana, his father died, leaving his family penniless. The only thing he and his mother had to eat were packages of cornmeal and powdered milk from the United States.
"I can see those packages clearly - 'USA Not to Be Sold' - and I can see my mother going to the cupboard. For me it was a lifeline," King, 50, told an interviewer for the oral history project.
In 1979 King left Guyana and came to the United States illegally. Several years later he got his green card, and by 2001 he had risen to construction supervisor for a company doing work in Manhattan and was living in Valley Stream, where he lives now. He owned his home, another in Brooklyn and had substantial savings.
"Not one day I don't thank God for the privilege and opportunity to live in this country," he said.
That's why when the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred, he felt compelled to go to the site to help in any way he could.
"Could I just lay on my bed and look at this on TV? I couldn't do it. I couldn't do it," he said.
On Sept. 14, three days after the attacks, he joined a line of volunteers at the site, securing a badge that permitted him to work. He worked on the bucket brigade and did whatever else he was asked. When that badge expired, he joined the line again and got another badge.
By December, when that second badge expired, people were being paid to work on the pile, he said. That's when he decided to leave.
"I wasn't prepared to accept cash," he said. "I did it for me, not for anyone else."
He paid a heavy price for his service. He lost his job in 2008. He had been diagnosed with severe lung problems, sleep apnea and gastroesophageal reflux disease, along with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he just couldn't do his job anymore.
He now lives off his Social Security and workers' compensation. He has lost his Brooklyn house, all his savings and is at risk of losing his Valley Stream home. He said he rarely leaves the house and worries about the future of his two daughters, ages 8 and 7.
But he said he has no regrets about his time at Ground Zero.
"You see, I was one of the recipients of the compassion of this country," he said. "This country was there when I was in need. I would do it again in a second."