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2 Retired Chicago Firefighters Remember Harrowing Experience Of Working At Ground Zero Right After 9/11

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Twenty years ago this week, about 100 Chicago firefighters packed up and headed to New York City after the Twin Towers fell in the 9/11 attacks.

They didn't hesitate. And as CBS 2 Political Investigator Dana Kozlov reported Wednesday, it was a defining time in their lives – for so many reasons.

Some Chicago firefighters left within the day on Sept. 11, 2001. Others went in the day or two following. One group even caravanned with a police escort all the way to New York.

Ask them, and they'll tell you – they'd do it again.

"One of our buddies – a friend of mine – said when the smoke cleared, he realized we were down on our knees, and you guys helped us stand up," said retired Chicago firefighter Pat Maloney.

"We didn't want to get in their way. That's what we did not want to do. We wanted to help," said retired Chicago firefighter Greg Kurcab, "but we didn't want to get in their way at all."

Kurcab and Maloney drove to New York City in separate groups, but they ended up in the same place – Ground Zero. The first thing Kurcab remembers seeing was a burning hotel.

"And nobody was worrying about it, and then when we walked around the other side of that, then we saw Ground Zero, and then we realized why nobody was worried about that building, because of what was going on behind it," he said.

"You were overwhelmed," added Maloney. "You didn't know where to start."

But Maloney, who retired from the CFD as a Special Operations battalion chief, said the FDNY firefighters they met at Ground Zero knew exactly what they needed.

"The fire chief said: 'Give me 10 guys. Man two hose lines. The rest of you, start doing searches. Hey Chicago, welcome to hell,'" he said.

Indeed, it was hell on earth. And for about a week, Maloney's group worked near or on "the pile" – as the massive mound of Twin Towers debris was known.

"Every one of us that went there in hope of finding somebody, you know, every day," Maloney said.

When their work ended – and a rescue was unquestionably a recovery – Kurcab remembers meeting fallen FDNY firefighter Mickey Brennan's family at a bar called Kevin St. James in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen community.

"It ended up being Mickey Brennan's sister came up to me and said, 'I need to thank you, and I want you to come here and meet my mom,'" Kurcab said.

It meant a lot. And to the country, first responders' efforts back then meant everything.

"I remember how together we were back then – people flying the flags and stuff," Maloney said. "I wish we could have a little bit more of that today."

Kurcab and Maloney both said firefighter training and rescue procedures were greatly improved in Chicago because of the 9/11 attacks.

Incidentally, many of the firefighters who went to New York are now retired.

Meanwhile, we know many of New York City's first responders and even people who happened to be around Ground Zero ended up with severe health problems.

It is not entirely clear whether any Chicago firefighters who were there suffered the same, but Kurcab and Maloney did not indicate that to be the case.

A group from Chicago will head back to Ground Zero this weekend for the 20-year memorial.

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