'Virtual museum' aims to honor LI first responders

A police vehicle carries firemen back to the A police vehicle carries firemen back to the collapse area Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001. Color Photo by Robert Mecea. Digital Image. Photo Credit: FREELANCE/Robert Mecea

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The first responders sit in front of a dark blue sheet hanging in the office of Dr. Benjamin Luft. They talk directly into the video camera - there are no fancy shots here - answering questions about their role in rescue and recovery at the World Trade Center site almost nine years ago.

The production is modest at best. But the goal is breathtaking and the results are riveting. Luft is director of the Long Island World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program in Islandia, affiliated with Stony Brook University Medical Center. He is trying to create a "virtual museum" of video oral histories from as many as possible of the 5,000 Long Islanders the center follows. The idea, he said, is to both honor their efforts and create an archive for the future - the first of its kind.

So far, a handful of staff members, squeezing interviews into their work days, have videotaped 50 first responders. By the 10th anniversary next year, they hope to have 911 video interviews completed. That's ambitious considering Luft, who is an internist and specialist in infectious diseases, is paying for the project from various endowments and his personal funds. The center has applied for grants and hopes to attract sponsors for the oral history project.

"Even nine years after the event there's a void," Luft said. "People don't really know who these people were and what their stories were. We're trying to get the real story . . . to let responders speak for themselves."

The stories they are capturing - in some ways so familiar and yet each so different - are moving testaments to the courage, competence, altruism and unwavering patriotism of these everyday Long Islanders.

Many cry in their interviews, as they recall, often in chilling detail, the horrific sights, sounds and smells. They speak of their enduring pain at not being able to find survivors. Their message is clear: They wanted to save people. Many now suffer serious health effects from their time on the pile. But none regret their role, and most say they would do it again.

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"Fifty thousand people descended on that site and there was no leader telling them what to do. They were all falling back on their own values," Luft said. "Where does all that education about civics go? Well, it was all there."

Rafael Orozco, a retired NYPD detective from Central Islip, put it this way when he described his fellow officers looking for survivors after the towers fell:

"As soon as the smoke began to clear, we were like ants at a picnic table. All you saw was cops trying to climb over, trying to find somebody. Everybody was trying to find somebody."

What follows are the stories of five responders who are part of the project. To see an edited video of their interviews, go to newsday.com/911. For more information on the project, and other profiles, videos and photos, go to 911respondersremember.org.

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