TAMPA, Fla. (FOX 13) - As the Twin Towers collapsed September 11, 2001, a cloud of debris followed. That cloud brought with it devastation in the form of physical illnesses that would plague survivors for years to come.
"I didn't think I was going to end up sick," said Ivan Castrillo, a former New York police officer who was at Ground Zero when the towers collapsed.
The debris and smoke covered the city. The haze was so thick it could be seen from space.
"There was soot and dust and ash everywhere. I mean, everything was covered," said Castrillo. "I would go to work, and I would leave and my navy blue uniform was completely grey, top to bottom."
Castrillo was one of the brave heroes who helped get people to safety on that tragic day. He also stayed at Ground Zero for six months following the attack as crews cleared the rubble. He survived 9/11, however, he's never fully recovered.
"I went through cancer, I have breathing problems, I have upper esophagus problems," explained Castrillo. "I have gastrointestinal problems due to the debris I ingested."
Experts said the cloud of debris was filled with dangerous chemicals and materials, including glass fibers, lead, and asbestos. All the toxins contributed to long-term and even fatal health problems for first responders and civilians.
"I was underneath the South Tower, and things were hitting me in my head and my body and I got covered in dust and I could not see my hand in front of my face," said Germano Riviera, a civilian who was at work inside the World Trade Center when the planes struck.
Like so many others, Riviera has dealt with the physical effects of that day for the past 18 years.
"I've had heart surgery already. I got surgeries on my shoulders, my stomach, I got two sinonasal because of the dust that went through my nose," said Riviera.
The past 18 years have not been easy, but both Castrillo and Riviera are thankful for a second chance many didn't get.
"I don't know what tomorrow's going to bring, but I'm here today and I'm thankful," said Castrillo.
It's estimated that at least 2,300 survivors have died of health problems resulting from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That number is expected to rise, soon outnumbering the nearly 3,000 lives lost during the actual attacks.