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9/11 firefighter: Pride in his heart, dust in his lungs

John Makely / The Baltimore Sun file

Early in the morning on September 12, 2001 rescue workers remove debris by hand from the ruins of the World Trade Center towers as the sunlight hit the remnants of the north tower.

 The first time I took a picture of FDNY firefighter John Gates was September 12, 2001, at Ground Zero. Of all of the men and women there that day, digging through the wreckage, John stood out. His face said it all: Disbelief at what had just happened, the gravity of the events that were unfolding. The sadness we felt.

I had arrived at Ground Zero around 3 AM on September 12.   At the time, I was living in Baltimore and working as a staff photographer for The Sun. When the first plane hit the North Tower, I checked in with my office and began making my way to lower Manhattan. When I arrived about 18 hours later, the scene was unfathomable.

John Makely/ The Baltimore Sun file

FDNY firefighter John Gates looks on as a stretcher carrying a rescued police officer is loaded into an ambulance while others applauded the rescue at Ground Zero on September 12, 2001.
In a 2002 interview Gates talked about what he was thinking at that moment.
"I was thinking about all my friends that could still buried in the rubble. It took a few days before you started to realize that you're probably not going to find anybody alive and that was kind of overwhelming that there were so many guys just from my firehouse alone, not to mention my cousin, Neil Leavy from 217 Engine who died in the collapse too. He was one of the first guys recovered, because he was in the south lobby, they found him within the first week. I didn't even know he was missing in this picture. I was still kind of hoping that they would find pockets of guys still alive."

As I started working, I noticed two lines of firefighters forming amid the jagged debris. The firefighters passed down their lines a stretcher holding a Port Authority Police Officer who had been found alive deep in the wreckage of the towers. It had taken hours to free the officer, and as the stretcher got closer to the ambulance at the end of the line, applause began to build.  It would turn out to be one of the few bright spots in the months to follow.

 John Gates from Ladder 3 in the East Village was one of the firefighters in the line carrying the stretcher that day. To me, his expression captured the sadness, confusion, anger and so many other raw, inexplicable emotions that a lot of people were feeling. Even though his face had such an impact on me, he was at that time still just a face in the crowd. It wasn’t until a year later that I would even learn who John Gates was.

John Makely/ The Baltimore Sun file

New York Firefighter John Gates , photographed in front of the firehouse with other members of the company on July 28, 2002. He was originally photographed on Sept. 12, 2001 as he watched as a Port Authority policeman loaded into an ambulance after getting pulled alive from the rubble early in the morning on Sept. 12. As fellow rescue workers applauded, Gates looked on, hoping that they would find more people alive. His firehouse alone was missing twelve men.

 Ten years after that first image of John Gates standing in the line of firefighters at Ground Zero, his expression and everything it said still remains with me.  I visited with John again this year, documenting through still images and video how the 9/11 attacks affect him today, and what the past decade has been like for him.

John Makely / msnbc.com

Retired FDNY firefighter John Gates stands outside of the Ladder 10 firehouse, across the street from an entrance to the World Trade Centers construction site, on the day that President Obama came to the site to lay a wreath for the fallen. Gates was forced to retire after the toxic cloud of debris from the collapsing towers damaged his lungs.

John Makely / msnbc.com

Retired FDNY firefighter John Gates plays with his youngest son Oliver at home in Staten Island.

John Gates was married just four months before the attacks. Today, he and his wife, Maricel, have two energetic boys. Still, there are reminders every day of what he lost on 9/11.  The toxic dust that John Gates inhaled during the attacks and in the weeks after that he spent searching through debris has left a permanent mark on him and over 1400 other FDNY personnel.  Besides the initial shock that all survivors had to overcome following the attacks, Gates now has to find a new path without the friends who died or the career he loved. Like many, moving forward after the attacks of 9/11 has been an ongoing challenge. This is my report:

Retired New York firefighter John Gates' life was changed irrevocably by the toxic cloud at Ground Zero. Ten years later, he works to figure out a new path forward—while never forgetting the past.