DENVER — The last time Mike Piper stepped foot in New York City was in 2011.
He was there to mark 10 years since the 9/11 tragedy and honor the memory of those died. The tragedy was personal to Piper who, as a structural engineer, was one of the Coloradans deployed to New York in 2001 as a member of Colorado Urban Search and Rescue Task Force One, which is part of FEMA.
I first met Piper in New York City when we were both there to mark the 10 year anniversary. I was there as a reporter. Piper took his kids to show them where he had worked.
We met up again, this time in Colorado, to reflect. Piper’s eyes teared up almost immediately when I asked what he was feeling and thinking as we neared the 20th anniversary of an event that shook us all to the core.
“Well, I should not be emotional. There's stuff that I saw that you don't unsee and conversations you had. So, what happens is sometimes you get reminded of that kind of out of the blue,” Piper said.
Piper is not afraid to admit he spent time talking to a mental health counselor after coming home.
“I just, I wanted to check in. Is how I feel about things normal? She says I might be a little more sensitive than normal, which would be news to my wife, I guess. But you got it on tape, didn't you?” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
Anyone would be emotional after seeing what looked like a war zone. His job as a structural engineer was to work alongside first responders and lead them through the safest path possible in a sea of destruction.
“We saw a lot of broken buildings. I talked to a lot of firefighters. I made the comment that I was really more of a social worker and a building archaeologist than I was a rescue guy because we didn't find anybody to rescue by the time we got there," Piper said. "I mean, nobody was really rescued after the first day. Right away, they wanted the engineer to meet up with them and go into Tower One. So, I went with two guys from Poudre.”
This was an experience no one had ever had before. They’d had never seen anything like it.
“It's weird how you latch on to things you recognize in chaos, and somebody had a little stuffed rabbit in their office that's laying there. So, there's no kids involved, thank goodness. But somebody had a little stuffed animal," Piper said. "I didn't move it, but I came back the second time I was in there and somebody picked that thing up and put it up on the steel. So, to me, that was the mascot.”
He also remembers being in the elevator section of one of the buildings.
“I was on the sixth floor because you can see this six on the doors, and there's nothing behind the door, just the door. And then you can see miles and hoisted ropes back there, you can see miles of guide rails in a pile. That's the stuff that I recognize because I've done elevators and high rises before,” Piper said.
First responders will tell you it’s late at night, long after the work is done, that the images come back and weigh deeply.
“You're dealing with all that during the day and at night when you're off duty. That was the harder part because then you start processing it. You're not a data recorder anymore. You're analyzing,”Piper said.
Piper says that kind of “processing" has stopped, but he hasn’t stopped wishing he could have done more.
It’s the images of other tragedies that get to him. Images like the condo collapse in Miami.
“That's been a little tough. Because I know, I know, from the Murrah Building what that looks like. I know from 9/11 because we experienced it. I know that those guys are going to be very bothered by what they were doing because that's tough," Piper said. "You're looking for people hoping you'll find a live victim that you can save and, and you never do. That's pretty hard. For a rescuer, I mean, that's how our heads are wired.”
The experience changed him and his priorities forever.
“Guys get wound up about stuff. And I just, it's like, why should I be excited about this? There's a lot of other stuff, it's a lot more important. I remember the first time somebody cut me off in traffic after I came back. It's like, boy, if you'd seen what I'd seen, you wouldn't be in such a big hurry. And I still think that way,” Piper said.
He doesn’t talk much anymore about his experiences at the 9/11 tragedy; sometimes at home, but rarely at his day job.
“We were in the midst of training a new engineer, and she's the same age as my youngest daughter, born in 1990 and she says, well, you know, I was in grade school when that happened. And that's what you run into a lot,“ Piper said.
And that worries him.
“The young younger people, you know, it's a thing, but they didn't really live it like we did, so it's hard to assess how, how important they think that is,” Piper said.
Piper is nearing the end of his time with Task Force One and he misses the men and women with whom he worked so closely. He takes comfort in knowing they did make a difference. And he says he is glad he went and would do it again.
He just hopes people never forget.