By Conor McCue

LAKEWOOD, Colo. (CBS4) – Saturday marks 20 years since one of the darkest days in our country’s history – the attacks on 9/11. It took an enormous human toll, and in the days that followed required a massive mobilization of first responders from all around the nation.

Several dozen of those helpers came from Colorado’s Task Force 1, a Colorado-based urban search and rescue team for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

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(credit: CBS)

Task force leader Steve Aseltine was one of the crew members who made the trip. At the time, he was a medical specialist for the group and had not yet been deployed to a major disaster.

“I had just gotten off shift, and I was driving south on Wadsworth,” Aseltine said. “You heard the news on the radio; the first plane going in, and then the second one fairly soon after that and then a lot of different thoughts started coming to mind.”

Two decades later, the memories of Sept. 11, 2001, remain crystal clear in Aseltine’s mind. He remembers the initial shock of hearing what happened, as well as how he immediately started preparing for his chance to help.

“I started calling the other people that I was involved with the task force, just making sure that they were packed and ready and we were ready to respond,” Aseltine said. “I don’t know if we were really anxious… just making sure that we were ready to start going out the door.”

That call came three days later, giving Aseltine and about 60 others just six hours to mobilize. About a week after that, the team of rescuers, paramedics, engineers, and more began work at what became known as “the pile.”

“The pile was overwhelming, multiple stories high, still spots of fire, just a mess,” he recalled.

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For seven days, the task force worked with crews from all around the country to rescue and render aid at Ground Zero. After that, members spent three days backing up New York Fire Department’s collapse rescue services.

“Would I still go today? Absolutely, and I think everyone would say that,” Aseltine said.

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Still, 20 years later it’s hard to ignore the lasting impacts for those who answered the call, as well as their families.

“We’ve since learned that cancer is such a huge risk for firefighters and continues to be,” Aseltine said.

“I never ever at the time would have imagined that we would lost so many responders.”

Among the many first responders who died years later was friend and colleague Aaron Lybarger. Colorado State officials have said his service in New York after 9/11 was most likely the cause of the cancer which took his life on June 2nd, 2018.

“Thinking about his family and his daughters and those kinds of things, it’s difficult, it really is,” Aseltine said. “However, the amount of good that was done, I really believe we did do a lot of good.”

(credit: CBS)

The names of the first responders lost on the day of the attacks are now displayed prominently in West Metro Fire’s training center. It rests atop a beam from the World Trade Centers.

“We try and honor that every day through service and learning and trying to provide and do the best that we possibly can,” Aseltine said.

On this anniversary, there will be no shortage of tributes, including “never forget” decals on all West Metro vehicles. For those who were there, the memory of a nation’s sacrifice and loss will endure far longer.

“I’m honored that I was able to help in a very small way, and I just really empathize with all of the families and everybody that was impacted across the world,” Aseltine said.

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Colorado Task Force 1 has since responded to many disasters across the country. Most recently, the group went to Louisiana to help out after Hurricane Ida made landfall.

Conor McCue