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My father was a 9/11 first responder.  His experience left an indelible mark.

It was September 11, 2001. Twenty years ago I remember the worst feeling – not knowing when, where, what or why, only that father was missing.

I went to school that morning; I was in fifth grade at a public elementary school in a quiet suburb of Long Island. A few hours later, many of my classmates were taken out of school by their parents. I remember thinking that something was wrong.

At the end of the day, there were only three other students and myself in the class. It was a calm day and we had almost no work to do. I lived in the same block as my elementary school, so I remember walking home.

Before I could even put down my backpack, my mother, unable to find the words to tell me, made me sit down and turned on the television. We didn’t have a cable at the time, but through the static electricity I saw the towers collapse. The image was hard to see at first; my mother was desperately tinkering with the antenna above the TV.

It was our only source of information at this point to find out what was going on. The same images played over and over again. Was it even real?

My mom just said, “Daddy went over there.

A photo of Devyn Rafols-Nuñez with her father, Carlos Nuñez.Courtesy of Devyn Rafols-Nuñez

The rest of the afternoon I was quiet. My mom was running around the house frantically and crying, waiting with all the hospitals in New York, trying to find him.

My father was a paramedic in New York City, so he was often at the scene of tragic events. But nothing of this magnitude had happened.

My mother would get tidbits of information from busy hospital workers that she managed to get over the phone. A hospital worker said there was a “Carlos” missing his leg, while another hospital said there was a “Carlos” with burns over 80% of his body. . It was after 4 p.m. and we still didn’t have a clear answer.

My mom asked me to go to the playground down the block where we lived with my friend Ashley, so she could “figure it out.” She promised me that everything would be fine.

Ashley and I sat at our favorite spot, at the top of the Dinosaur Jungle Gym. I told him everything, including how scared I was. We cried together.

The next day, we finally had the word. My father was fine. He was being treated for injuries at a Brooklyn hospital.

After assuming the worst, I remember my heart and stomach were pounding. I was relieved and grateful to still have him in my life after seeing these poignant images on TV.

As I sat in the living room, looking out the window the next afternoon, her face slowly emerged from behind the bushes in front of our house. I will never forget the image of him walking up the steps.

I didn’t recognize him at first. His entire head had been shaved because he needed stitches, and he was wearing loose clothing that was not his. It was as if a stranger was walking up the steps. But it was him, and he was alive.

He was accompanied by a volunteer who had offered to drive him home. It would normally have taken around 40 minutes by car, but all major roads and highways were closed in the area.

A photo of Devyn Rafols-Nuñez with her father around the time of September 11.Courtesy of Devyn Rafols-Nuñez

That day, my dad leaned against the kitchen counter and recounted what had happened as we sat in silence, listening.

He described the billowing black smoke and panic of people descending the stairs of the South Tower as he ascended. He spoke of the injuries, falling debris, soot and dust that covered lower Manhattan.

My father and his team had arrived just after the first plane hit. He soon realized that it was bigger than anything he had known before. He called my mom to let her know he was going inside the tower, in case she didn’t hear from him again.

He and the other emergency medical workers who arrived at the scene were ordered to set up a triage site on the second floor of the South Tower. My father described the hysteria, the first burns they treated and those who couldn’t breathe. Shortly after, they were told to leave the building and reset the yard site just outside.

He remembered being in black smoke when he returned to the triage site. My father suffered from a head injury and some bruises and burns.

It was difficult to understand everything at 10 years old. How could this have happened?

My father spoke about his colleagues whom he had not heard of. There were still so many people missing. He spoke of three firefighters he saw – or angels, as he called them – who stopped and looked at each other for a moment before heading to the first tower. It fell a few minutes later, and my dad thinks the men knew they wouldn’t make it out alive. So many people have sacrificed their lives to save others.

A proclamation given by the city to Carlos Nuñez for his work. Courtesy of Devyn Rafols-Nuñez

It was difficult to cope with the loss of thousands of people. Dad and his family emigrated from the Dominican Republic when he was 4, and he has lived in the New York area ever since.

In the Latino community alone, around 250 people have been killed, including hotel and restaurant workers – and first responders like my father.

As an adult, I can understand and see 9/11 differently. But for a long time after those early years, I couldn’t watch any 9/11 videos or TV shows. It was tough and, frankly, scary.

I think back to those first weeks and months after the attacks and how much we depended on the news. We were all looking for answers; my parents had television every night.

My dad always went back to zero every day to help with recovery. In the years that followed, urgently the calls he would answer would bring him back to that day.

Recently my father told me that he wanted to protect me from the pain that he and so many others were feeling. Every birthday, my father said, he tried not to think about it. He considers himself lucky.

“The last 20 years were a gift, I got to see you,” he told me.

So many others haven’t had that chance to hold loved ones again or tell them they love them.

First responders were at the forefront of the horror, some literally sacrificing their lives. My father’s story is not one, but one among many. He’s my hero, and I’m so proud of what he did that day.

Knowing his story is a way for me to remember what happened on September 11 and to remember those we lost.

Our day 20 years ago could have ended very differently. I love you, dad, always.

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