ELK RIVER, Minn. (WCCO) -- Elk River fire chief John Cunningham needs look only at the photographs on his office wall to feel the flood of emotions.
"We were in the middle of the collapse zone, so we were right in the middle of ground zero," said Cunningham.
Cunningham was a 21-year-old volunteer firefighter in Connecticut when he was pressed into service after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that shocked the nation.
"At that moment I realized that this is where I need to be," Cunningham recalls.
He and many of his fellow firefighters were among countless first responders who searched through the rubble and remains of ground zero.
"The iconic twin towers that once were there weren't there anymore. All you saw was smoke rising from a pile of rubble," Cunningham said.
Now the chief of Elk River's fire department, with a volunteer force of 45 people, Cunningham is still haunted by the sights no rookie firefighter would ever forget.
"We knew walking in that there was firefighters that were lost," says the chief.
But it was at the end of one of his long shifts at ground zero when the darkness was stripped away from all the doom. That's the moment he and a fellow firefighter, Dominic Briganti, were surprised by a crowd's patriotic applause and a little girl's big gift.
"A young girl broke free and ducked underneath a barricade, ran up to both Dominic and myself, gave us a hug and gave us a blue ribbon that said, 'Who I am makes a difference,'" Cunningham said.
Cunningham now wants blue ribbons pinned on all of Elk River's 23,000 residents. He and others in the city have created the Elk River Blue Ribbon challenge. The idea is to recognize the countless gestures and deeds performed each day that make it a community that cares.
"A lot of times we take for granted the little things that people do and we don't necessarily say thanks, and maybe we don't know the words," Cunningham said.
Simple little gestures of helping others in times of need -- building a fire, kindled by blue ribbons, that no evil will ever put out.
"It's kindness and generosity that really makes this world the world it is," Cunningham said.
For more information on the Elk River Blue Ribbon Challenge: The city encourages people to share their stories online and via social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram) using @ERBlueRibbon and #ERBlueRibbon.
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