Remembering 9/11 has become a form of therapy for Douglas Gomez.
Born and raised in the Manhattan borough of New York City, Gomez was in the middle of the chaos on Sept. 11, 2001, and watched both towers of the World Trade Center collapse after being hit by planes in the deadliest attack on U.S. soil. He immediately joined a group of civilian first responders and used his management experience from the corporate world to organize two triage centers adjacent to the morgue.
Gomez said the memories of working nonstop for two days at the site where nearly 3,000 people lost their lives still bring on post-traumatic stress.
“I saw hundreds and hundreds of body parts and no survivors, and spent that time functioning on adrenaline to try to help anyone that I could, particularly the firefighters because they were coming in and out of the lobby that I was in with body bags, body bags and more body bags,” Gomez said. “You could see the expressions on their faces of the pain that they were suffering to be doing this, and so those images still haunt me.”
Gomez, who has lived in Santa Fe for nearly five years, deals with his pain by talking about his experience with others. He did so over seven years while giving tours at ground zero as part of the 9/11 Tribute Museum, and Wednesday, he shared his story during Santa Fe’s 9/11 remembrance ceremony on the Plaza.
Stirred by what the city he now calls home has done each year to remember the tragedy he experienced firsthand, Gomez said he contacted the New York City Fire Department and the 9/11 Tribute Museum to secure a piece of the World Trade Center’s steel for Santa Fe.
The piece was present during Wednesday’s ceremony and will have a permanent home at City Hall.
“I didn’t know if Santa Fe did anything on 9/11, so I was feeling displaced from New York City, where I spent every 9/11,” Gomez said. “When I saw the ceremonies honoring the remembrance, it touched me, and every year I’ll come here.”
Wednesday’s ceremony also included a parade featuring historic firetrucks and reserve units that made their way from Cerrillos Road to the Plaza, where several symbolic gestures took place to represent the events of 9/11.
Throughout the ceremony, a group of Santa Fe firefighters in full gear took turns climbing two small sets of stairs for 102 minutes — the amount of time between the first plane’s strike and the second tower’s fall — to honor the 343 first responders who died in the World Trade Center’s collapse.
Jerry Sanchez, who has been with the department for 11 years, took part in the stair ceremony while carrying nearly 60 pounds of gear. This was a special year of remembrance for him, as he told his 8-year-old son about the events of 9/11 for the first time.
“It has been a part of my life forever, and having to tell someone who wasn’t even born then what had happened, that airplanes crashed into buildings, he couldn’t fathom that idea,” said Sanchez, 32. “It was great that I could share that moment with him the day before 9/11 and tell him why I was doing this, so that hopefully he can keep remembering for years to come.”
Firefighter Richard Montaño, 25, was in second grade when the towers fell, and he remembers sitting in a room with his classmates all day watching the events unfold.
When it was his turn to climb the stairs, he said he thought not only of the first responders who died that day, but also of those who have suffered from cancers and illnesses that resulted from exposure to smoke, dust and chemicals at ground zero.
“We’ve lost a lot of people to 9/11-related illnesses, so it’s still not over,” Montaño said. “That’s what we’re here for, for all the men and women who were first responders and are still sick and dying to this day from all of those events.”
Santa Fe Fire Department Capt. Jason Arwood, who led Wednesday’s remembrance, encourages his youngest firefighters to take part in the ceremony each year. Many, he says, were in grade school or younger during 9/11 and have little to no recollection of the events.
Arwood said the New York City Fire Department sets the bar for fire service, and he wants all his firefighters to understand the ultimate dedication and sacrifice the first responders showed on that day.
“You want to be a firefighter in the city of Santa Fe; it’s not about wearing your T-shirt to the store or your bunker pants, it’s about the service to people,” Arwood said. “We make sure we instill that in folks.”