Hoosier firefighter who battled cancer after 9/11 reflects on experience at Ground Zero

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It’s been almost fifteen years since terror changed our world. A new generation has since grown up having not knowing what it was like before 9/11.

In that time, a Hoosier hero has grappled with the effects of working more than a week of 12-hour shifts at Ground Zero. Those effects have been emotional and physical.

The memories of September 11, 2001 come through to Mark Rapp very vividly. On the evening of 9/11, just a scant few hours after the planes struck the world trade center, Rapp, the leader of Indiana Task Force One was on his way to New York.

“We weren`t prepared.  Totally non prepared for what we saw. It was a time of crisis. Unfamiliar. Chaotic…

And then when we walked up to see the magnitude of the devastation and the amount of people working the pile.  It looked just like a string of ants lined up as far as you could see…

There was no organization, but who could organize that?” Rapp said.

In those first hours after his team arrived, it was no longer a rescue mission.

“Unfortunately there were no survivors after the initial day; from the 12th on, they were all fatalities.

As grim as it was, the Hoosier force still found hope in their dusty, dangerous work amid the rubble… You always had that ray of hope that we were going to find somebody.

I went 72 hours with no sleep on my first 3 days, so mental fatigue is much harder to come back from than your physical fatigue.” Rapp said.

For 10 days, Rapp`s team worked at Ground Zero, somehow finding the fortitude while reaching the bodies of fallen New York firefighters.

“New York City firefighters were standing right next to me, they would literally just collapse You`re talking about a group of heroes.”

And today, 15 years later, Rapp bears more than the emotional scars from that terrible day. Last December, the air he breathed in those days, left him with a diagnosis of lung cancer.

“27 different items is what they come up with on our exposure report.  Mercury.  A lot of the stuff I can`t even pronounce. “

Fortunately for Rapp, the fight was more aggressive than the cancer.

“I was extremely fortunate that it didn`t go anywhere.  It stayed in my upper lobes in my lungs and only went to one lymph node. With chemo and radiation they were able to take care of it.”

Now, Rapp’s in remission. In his mind - the mind of a hero, it was a small price to pay because he knows others in his own group did not survive.

“I was very fortunate.  My cancer to me, I consider it a hiccup, a small time in my life and I`m very fortunate.  But the people that didn`t make it, the people that suffered for those five to eight years after 9/11, they had a slow death.”

Through it all, Rapp was determined not to let the physical and emotional demands of his job make him another fatality. For this Hoosier hero, there are no regrets - only a difference, he knows he helped make.

“I wouldn`t have changed a thing. If somebody said, ‘You`re going to get cancer,’ that`s my job.  And I love my job. I love what I do. You can`t let that bother you. You have to go on living your life and not let it bring you down.”

Rapp hasn`t been back to New York since 9/11, but this week, he’s going there along with thousands of other Americans who wanted to be there in person to mark the 15th anniversary. He says it`s a chance to see what`s been accomplished since 2001 and see the good that came from such a terrible chapter.

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