'Complete devastation': West Virginia first responder helped clear 9/11 wreckage

Michael Harper, a West Virginia paramedic, was part of a task force dispatched to Ground Zero shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Harper shared his story with LiveNOW from FOX. 

Harper remembered watching the devastating scene on Sept. 11, 2001, play out on the news when he knew it would go on to be a day unlike any other.

"At first it didn’t seem like it was going to be a big deal," Harper said. But once he and his team saw more footage, they realized how big of an impact this day would have. 

Harper recalled that he knew he had to help somehow. 

So Harper set out with a team of eight to lend a helping hand and do what they could to assist in the recovery. 

"It’s kind of in the nomenclature of a first responder, you want to help, regardless of where the impact is," Harper said. "It’s in the blood of a first responder just to go where they’re needed."

As Harper and his team got closer to ground zero, he said he began to realize he would be there for the long haul. 

RELATED: ‘It was like a war zone’: 9/11 first responder shares ongoing struggle with PTSD

Looking back on the moment he arrived, Harper said it was devastating. 

"Fire trucks were turned upside down, everything was crushed, everything’s covered in dust," Harper recalled. "Complete devastation, you can’t imagine what you just walked into."

Harper said one of the more eerie moments of the arrival was that he and his crew arrived so early that many of the car alarms nearby were still blaring.

"Fire trucks just crushed and nobody in them," Harper said. 

Harper said he spent an inconceivable length of time as part of the bucket brigade, which filled buckets with debris and passed them in a row in efforts to clear wreckage and potentially find survivors. 

Twenty years later, Harper said his memories of the event are vivid. 

"I’ve got vivid memories, they flash back from time to time but it was kind of a depressing feeling."

While Harper and his team worked tirelessly to help clear the area, he recalls having a feeling among his crew that there was still more that could’ve been done.

"We had that sense that we went to help, but did we help enough?" Harper said. 

Harper stays in touch with his crew but now only six members of his original team remain. 

He said he believes the deaths of his teammates were "ground zero-related." 

Today, some of them are among the more than 111,000 people enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program, which gives free medical care to people with health problems potentially linked to the dust.

RELATED: Toxic dust from World Trade Center may still be causing illnesses 20 years later

Two decades after the twin towers’ collapse, people are still coming forward to report illnesses that might be related to the attacks.

To date, the U.S. has spent $11.7 billion on care and compensation for those exposed to the dust -- about $4.6 billion more than it gave to the families of people killed or injured on Sept. 11, 2001. More than 40,000 people have gotten payments from a government fund for people with illnesses potentially linked to the attacks.

Scientists still can’t say for certain how many people developed health problems as a result of exposure to the tons of pulverized concrete, glass, asbestos, gypsum and other unknown materials that rained on Lower Manhattan when the towers fell.

Harper said that the feeling that more could have been done has stuck with him since the attacks and has prompted him to continue working as a first responder to this day. 

"I felt like we could have done more. so, to justify my feelings I've been on for. Hurricane responses since then. and each one of those I try to do just a little bit more than I did the last time," he said.