20 years after 9/11, former Menlo Park fire chief remembers rescue mission at Ground Zero

September 11 is a deeply personal time for Harold Schapelhouman.

He’s the former chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District and was a leader with the Federal Urban Search and Rescue Task Force – a national emergency response network he helped create.

When the attacks of 9/11 happened two decades ago, his team from the Bay Area scrambled to Ground Zero in Manhattan.

"Part of me wanted to go and a part of me dreaded it because I knew exactly what the journey had on it and it wasn’t going to be a pleasant thing," Schapelhouman told KTVU in a recent interview at his San Jose home.

He’d already been to the Oklahoma City bombing site and would continue responding to disasters after 9/11 like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

But this day would be one of his toughest. His friend and fellow taskforce member, New York Fire Department Deputy Chief Ray Downey was killed with 342 other firefighters when the Twin Towers collapsed. 

"That made it personal," Schapelhouman said. "That made it harder. It was a devastating blow."

His team got to the site days later and was tasked with sifting through the massive debris pile at night.

"Everybody’s holding out hope that they’re going to find someone alive and maybe as misplaced as that hope was that what drives your work period," he said. "I mean we all wanted to have that happen."

"The team did find solace in bringing closure to families by recovering their loved one’s remains."

But the tragedy didn’t end when their job was complete. He said 70% of his crew members got sick in the months and years after – some had pneumonia, skin legions, nose bleeds or worse.

"It was important work we did," he said. "We’re all proud of the work we did but everybody paid a physical price a mental price, and that’s not to say were victims, but you don’t get through one of these events unscathed."

And even after everything that’s happened, "nobody would change going back," he said.

Eight years ago Schapelhouman fell off a ladder and broke his neck. He now uses a wheel chair. 

Two decades after the attacks of September 11, he still remembers and honors all those who perished. 

"9-11 is a tough day," he said. "I mean people say let’s make it into a day of service. Maybe it’s a day of remembrance because it seems like a bunch of people forgot what this was about." 

Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at evan.sernoffsky@foxtv.com and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky