It was Sept. 11, 2001. Twenty years ago, the worst feeling I had was not knowing where, when or what, but that Dad was missing.

I went to school the morning of that day. I was fifth grade at a quiet suburban school on Long Island. A few hours later, my classmates were being pulled from school by their parents. I clearly remember feeling something was wrong.

By the end of that day, there were only three students and me in the classroom. We had very little work that day. It was quiet. I grew up on the same block that my elementary school. I can still remember the walk back.

Before I could drop my backpack, my mother, not knowing what to say, sat down and turned on my television. Although we didn’t have cable at that time, I could see the towers collapse through the static. It was difficult to see the image at first. My mother tried desperately to fix the antenna on the TV.

It was the only way to find out what was going on. Over and over, the same images kept playing. Is this really possible?

My mom just said, “Dad went there.”

A picture of Devyn Rafols-Nunez with her father, Carlos Nunez. Courtesy Devyn Rafols-Nunez

The rest of the afternoon I was quiet. My mother ran around the house crying and panicking, calling all the New York hospitals to try and find him.

My dad was a New York City paramedic, so he was frequently at the scene of horrific events. However, nothing of the magnitude that occurred had ever happened.

My mom would receive bits of information from the busy hospital workers she was able to reach on the phone. One employee at a hospital said there was a “Carlos” missing his leg, while another hospital said there was a “Carlos” with burns on over 80 percent of his body. We didn’t know the answer until it was almost 4 p.m.

My mom asked me to go down to the playground next to our house with Ashley to “figure it out.” Ashley promised that everything would be fine .

Ashley sat on top of the dinosaur jungle gymnasium, which was our favorite spot. I shared everything with her, even how scared I was. We both cried together.

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

After imagining the worst, my stomach and heart fluttering. After seeing the horrific images on TV, I felt relieved and grateful that he was still with me.

As I sat in my living room, watching out for him, he slowly emerged from behind our front bushes. The sight of him walking up the front steps is something I will never forget.

I didn’t recognise him at first. His entire head was shaved, and he was wearing clothes that were not his. It was as if an unknown man was walking up those steps. It was him.

Accompanying him was a volunteer who had offered to drive him home. It would have normally been about a 40-minute drive, but all major roads and highways were closed in the area.

A picture of Devyn Rafols-Nunez with her father, around the time of 9/11. Courtesy Devyn Rafols-Nunez

That day, my father leaned against the kitchen counter and recounted what happened as we sat in silence, listening. He described the black smoke billowing from the South Tower and the panic that accompanied people running down the stairs. He described the injuries, the debris that fell and the dust that covered lower Manhattan.

My father and his crew arrived shortly after the first plane struck. He realized quickly that this was unlike anything he had ever experienced. To let my mother know that he was going into the tower, he called her.

He was instructed by the emergency medical service workers to establish a triage station on the second floor in the south tower. My father described the panic, the first burn victims they treated, and the people who couldn’t breath. They were directed to leave the building immediately and go outside to reset the triage station.

He recalled being in pitch-black smoke as he made his way back to the triage station. My father sustained a head injury, as well as some minor burns.

It was hard to comprehend it all as a 10-year-old. How did this happen?

My dad spoke about the colleagues that he had not heard from. Many people were still missing. Three firemen, or angels as he called them, he described saw stopped and stared at each other before heading into the first tower. My father believes that the men knew they wouldn’t make it alive and it fell minutes later. Many people gave their lives for others.

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

It was hard to grapple with the loss of thousands of people. Dad, his family emigrated from Dominican Republic at the age of four. He had been living in New York City since then.

In the Latino community alone, around 250 people were killed, including hospitality 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 first years, I couldn’t watch any videos or TV specials about 9/11. It was difficult and scary.

I think back to the first weeks and months following the attacks and how dependent we were on the news. My parents were always looking for answers.

My dad still went back to the ground zero every day to help with recovery. In the years that followed, any emergency calls he would respond to would bring him back to that day.

Recently my father said that he wanted to protect me from the pain he, and so many others, were experiencing. My dad stated that he has tried to forget about the pain on every anniversary. He considers himself fortunate.

“These last 20 years were a gift, I was able to see you,” he told me.

Many others weren’t able to see their loved ones or tell them how much they are missed.

First response personnel were at the front line of horror, with some literally risking their lives. My dad’s story isn’t just one. It is one of many. He is my hero and I am so proud of the things he did on that day.

Knowing his story is a way I remember what happened on 9/11 and memorialize those we lost.

Our day 20 years ago could have ended much differently. You are my Dad.

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