‘It was like a war zone’: 9/11 first responder shares ongoing struggle with PTSD

Joe Thompson, a former NYPD detective who worked as a first responder during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, has struggled to move on from the terrible tragedy. 

While he was on the scene within 30 minutes of the first tower collapsing, Thompson hasn’t watched any commemoration ceremonies since suffering extensive posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) since the day of the attacks. 

Hours before two planes flew into the World Trade Center’s North and South Towers, Thompson remembers Sept. 11 as "any other." 

"It was a beautiful day, sunshine was out," he said. "I still remember driving down the street, my partner and I were actually enforcing a parking issue at a local location in my precinct that I was in when the radio reports started coming in of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center." 

Thompson says he and his partner initially thought it was a small plane that had crashed but soon reports came in that it was commercial airliners.

As soon as more information came into his radio, Thompson and his partner grabbed as many able bodies as they could and moved to evacuate Wall Street when the second plane crashed.

"We knew we were under attack," Thompson said. "As we were evacuating the street, I still remember from that beautiful sunshine day, the bright sunny skies, it just got completely dark," Thompson recalled. 

"The sound of the crash of the first building coming down is something I’ll never forget and then all of a sudden that sunshine went to complete darkness and the next thing you know we were engulfed in that big cloud of smoke that you see on the TVs," Thompson added. 

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The crash of the second plane caused Thompson and his crew to be scattered but they held fast and quickly worked to get as many civilians to safety as quickly as they could. 

Thompson along with other first responders quickly mobilized to the same area, covering their faces with cloth rags in order to prevent smoke and ash from getting into their lungs. 

Unfortunately, Thompson and his team attempted to regroup in the chaos but when they exited one of the towers, they were missing one of their own. 

"This is probably the hardest thing for me personally because when we came out we found everybody except for one of our own guys," Thompson said. "During the course of this we heard all the radio transmissions, we heard all the calls for help coming from the buildings, we knew that guys needed our help and people were still stuck in that other building."

With so much overwhelming chaos, Thompson and his team were torn as to how to cover such a large area of havoc. 

They kept getting radio calls of people trapped in their buildings as well as the unforgettable moments of first responders losing their lives.

"We even heard a female officer’s last breath on the radio, which is something I would never forget," Thompson said. 

Thompson did all he could to find as many survivors as he could, including one man he calls Pat. Thompson was three-quarters of a block to the second tower hoping to find Pat before the second tower ultimately collapsed causing the team to be scattered once more. 

They eventually found Pat who was seen running for his life away from the destruction.

Thankfully, Thompson and his team were able to locate Pat later that night saying that if it wasn’t for him Thompson and his team would have most likely still been inside the second tower. 

One of the most unforgettable and tragic images that have stuck with Thompson twenty years after the attacks is the aftermath of the damage caused by the collapsing towers. 

"Something that I still recall is when we emerged out of the locations that we had gotten into for safety it was like, I guess you could say, like a nuclear type winter," Thompson said. "Things were burning, things were on fire, there were flames coming out of things. It was terrible it was like a war zone." 

Thompson said he kept finding notes, one of which read, "Help me, I’m on the 83rd floor." He found children’s toys and other heartbreaking items of victims.

Thompson estimated that he must have spent roughly 400 hours helping clean the wreckage and search for survivors. He says he spent nearly a month working through the landfill searching for human remains.

"We found bits and pieces of hair, pulverized bone and stuff like that," Thompson said. 

Thompson said it’s been difficult for him to cope with some of the gruesome imagery he witnessed firsthand that day but says the support of his friends and colleagues has helped him process the attacks. 

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"My best friend is still my best friend to this day who I was down there with," Thompson said. "9/11 is a very painful day for all of us." 

Thompson says he avoids watching any television consisting of content related to the attacks including radio shows because it brings back too many harsh memories. 

But that doesn’t stop him from doing what he can to talk to people who experience such a tragedy. 

"We do the best we can and we’re always there to listen to other people, I still listen to other stories," Thompson said. 

He’s been offered to visit the memorial site in New York City but he says the memory of the attacks is too powerful and he can’t bring himself to return. 

"For the same reasons that I can’t watch television on 9/11 and that stuff like that, it brings back too many painful thoughts for me," Thompson said.