[singlepic=134,220,140,,left]Today marks an historic day in America. The world stopped seven years ago and watched the horror unfold at Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania. No American will forget where they were when they heard news of the attacks—just like nobody living in 1963 forgets where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated.

The Mint Hill Times interviewed area resident Rick Malatestinic two years ago about his involvement with the rescue and recovery operations at Ground Zero. Malatestinic was a volunteer firefighter on Long Island, New York.

“It was like a dream. It wasn’t real,” he said. “I just couldn’t believe something like that was really happening.”

Read the full interview below.

Q. Where were you when you first heard that the planes had hit the World Trade Center?

A. I was already working. I worked for Cingular at the time and was on the road and heard it on the radio. At first I thought it was a joke. I flipped through the stations and heard it more and more so I stopped at a friend’s house that was close by so I could see it on TV. That’s when I saw the towers burning. Basically everything stopped at that point. I wasn’t thinking of working anymore because I’d been with the fire department for 10 years and your mind goes somewhere else when something like that happens. I knew what I had to do.

Q. You were at the site pretty soon after the towers collapsed. What was it like down there?

A. Chaos. In the beginning there was no direction. Everybody was doing what they could do to help, whether it was digging through rubble because they thought they heard somebody, or helping other people that wanted to help because they were overcome by smoke. Nobody knew what they were breathing, and it took a lot of people down before they could do anything.

Q. Was there a time when you thought you weren’t going to get through those first few days working at Ground Zero?

A. There were quite a few times you break down. But you’re not doing anybody any good like that. You have a job to do, so you can’t sit there and let it get to you. Even now, I see things and it seems like it was just yesterday.

Q. Is there a specific image that stands out for you?

A. Blocks before you got to Ground Zero, the roads were desolate. There’s usually people everywhere, but there was nothing but emergency people and dust. Everywhere you looked everything was coated in a gray ash. And the smell: New York has its own smell, but this was different. It was a sharp, putrid smell that you could taste. So coming up to the scene was what I remember most. After that, pretty much everything was a blur; one day just led into the next. I’ve been through some big disasters before and even guys you don’t know are there to hold you up when you’re overcome with emotion. But I don’t think anyone had ever experienced anything like this before.

Q. What can you say about some of the people you were working with?

A. One thing that amazed me was some of the debris they were able to move with just pulleys and ropes before the heavy equipment arrived. We’re all trained for that, but we had never had to do anything like that day. Seeing some of the progress they were able to make moving girders and partial walls with nothing but pulleys and ropes and manpower, that was amazing to me, the resolve people had to do what they’re trained to do. It was like second nature.

Q. How would you say you have changed since 9/11?

A. It’s made me realize my own mortality. As a firefighter, you think nothing is going to happen to you, like you have a guardian angel. But that’s not the way it is. I was with the fire department and rode with an ambulance for several years, and you deal with it every day and you never think that it will ever happen to you. There’s 343 guys that will show you otherwise.

Q. Do you still think about it a lot?

A. Everyday. You try not to, but you see guy’s faces that you knew and dealt with day-to-day. Sometimes an image will pop into your head, or you’ll smell something that will remind you, and you start thinking of that day. I don’t think there’s any emergency services up there that don’t think about it. This is the first year I won’t be up there on 9/ll for the memorial services.