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9/11 20 Years Later: No Regrets From First Responders Suffering Chronic Illness From Ground Zero Toxins; 'Our City Needed Us'

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- For the hundreds of thousands of people who lived, worked or ran to help near the World Trade Center on 9/11, chronic illnesses have become a daily reminder of that day.

Many have lost their lives, and many still will because of the toxic cloud of debris and dust that hovered over Lower Manhattan.

Former NYPD officer Glenn Tarquinio remembers 9/11 with every breath he takes. Tarquinio has lung damage and now cancer.

He remembers leaving his family and rushing into the unknown.

"I could see the smoke. I could see the smoke from the Twin Towers some 60, 65 miles away," Tarquinio told CBS2's Carolyn Gusoff. "I said, 'I have no idea, no idea what we're going into.'"

For Tarquinio and others living with the scars of heroism, it was an instinctive act to help amid unimaginable destruction. They didn't know, at the time, they would become victims themselves.

"You couldn't see any blue sky. You could see the smoke, the haze from the fire that was burning for over 100 days," Tarquinio said.

Complete Coverage: 9/11 20 Years Later

Dust from the collapse of the Twin Towers contained a toxic brew of pulverized glass, metals and asbestos - a plume that later caused 68 different cancers.

"Aggressive cancers," Tarquinio said. "They're not going to be playing with their grandchildren."

9/11 never ended for many of the half a million first responders, students, office workers and residents of Lower Manhattan.

Three thousand first responders and volunteers have since died - more than on September 11, 2001.

A record 293 names will be added to the First Responders Memorial this year. The pace is accelerating, as cancers take hold and COVID-19 deals a devastating blow to those with underlying diseases.

Retired New York City Correction Officer Billy Valentin was already battling breathing issues from his 12 hours a day over six months on a solemn bucket brigade searching for remains.

"I remember the taste in my mouth, I remember the air, I remember the grit in my eyes," Valentin said. "The ground was super unstable and super hot. Our boots would melt at least two times a day."

And then came the coronavirus.

"I got slammed by this thing," Valentin said.

He spent a month in a coma, clawing back to life.

"My mobility in my hands and arms was almost none. I couldn't walk, I lost about 65 pounds," he said.

Health care for those who were exposed to 9/11 toxins is available for their lifetime - the next 70 years.

"When we responded 20 years ago, we had the backs of our community, of our city, our state and our country, " said Court Cousins, of the Syosset Fire Department. "Everybody did their job, but now our country's having our back."

After 20 years, there are struggles, but no regrets.

"We would all do it, knowing what we know now, immediately again, because our country, our city needed us," Valentin said. "We came together as a city. That was actually a horrible time and an amazing time all at once for us, and I know I would do it immediately again for my family, for your family."

Heroes rose from the toxic dust.

"Any war, people sacrifice for what's important, and we did that and we would do it again," Valentin added.

"Senseless, senseless violence, and it changed the world," said Tarquinio.

The World Trade Center Health Program is free to all who have a documented 9/11-related illness. Congress also designated billions of dollars for victims compensation for those with cancer and those who have lost loved ones. Click here for more information.

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