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Sunday Conversation: A Sept. 11 responder focuses on human kindness then and now

Ten years after Andy Huber dug through the debris of the fallen twin towers in New York, the now-retired Valrico resident brought back a piece of Sept. 11 history to the Tampa Bay area: a 3-by-2-foot, 250-pound chunk of World Trade Center steel. The 49-year-old former New York Police Department detective, known as Pappy, searched for survivors and bodies in the towers' dusty wreckage for a week and a half. As president of the Westside Chapter of the Nam Knights Motorcycle Club, Huber retrieved the steel last month through the New York Fire Department and plans to build a memorial at the motorcycle clubhouse. He reflected on the terrorist attacks with Times staff writer Stephanie Wang.

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What will you be thinking about on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks?

I'll be honoring everyone that passed and looking forward to the future. There's so many people, not just cops and firemen, but the ironworkers and a lot of people who are suffering now from the ill effects of working there (at the World Trade Center) for so many months. I'll be remembering the sacrifices of men and women of the armed services who have been protecting our country, and their families who have gone through so much. We have men and women doing three or four tours, which is unprecedented. No other generation has been asked to give so much.

Is the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 different from any of the preceding anniversaries?

I think to people in general, it's more symbolic. But for me, it's just another Sept. 11. That day will never change — that day for me is always changed. My life has changed since that day, and my family's life has changed ever since that day.

What's it like for you when people ask you about Sept. 11?

Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad. I find that as I tell the story, I'm trying to focus more on what good can come out of it than the bad. If you always focus on the negative, your life will wind up becoming the negative. You can't forget what happened that day. You can't forget the evil that was perpetrated that day. But you have to concentrate on all the great that happened that day.

For me, it's a cathartic thing. I don't want to say self-therapy, but if you talk about it, then you're not internalizing it and it's not beating you up inside.

How has your experience on Sept. 11 changed you?

I got a lot of issues with post-traumatic stress disorder, drinking, dealing with all the things we saw and did. And then the stress on my family — not being able to relate to my wife, all the time away from my family, the sickness. I've got all kinds of stomach issues going on, and my esophagus is full of ulcers. It all depended on where you worked on the pile, what you got.

It's changed my life in a big way. I try to appreciate life a lot better and a lot more than I did before. In my small town alone, we lost six people, and I knew them all. In an instant, they're gone. Sometimes it takes a huge event to really drive it home to people.

For you, did anything positive come out of that day?

There were people that day, they gave their lives for people they didn't even know. There were people that stayed with people when they didn't have to. They could have just left, and they didn't.

If you think about it, the towers were full of thousands of people who never knew one another. There were heroes in those towers we'll never hear about. I think that alone is a huge statement to who we are as a nation. That far outshines whatever those people thought they were going to do to us. I think that's the good that we need to remember.

What do you think about when you see that piece of World Trade Center steel?

It makes it real, something that the people of Tampa can touch and look at. It's actually two pieces of steel that are bound together with rivets. The rivets never broke. The steel around it ripped and tore, but that bond never broke. To me, that bond represents the brotherhood that I have with my brothers and what the men and women overseas have with each other. No matter what happens to them, that bond will never break.

The fact that you were there, there's a bond. It doesn't matter if I knew you or not — there's a bond. You can meet somebody for the first time, and you tell them, I was there on Sept. 11. I choked on that dust, and you can immediately connect with them.

I just want to thank everyone for remembering, and to please never forget.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Sunday Conversation: A Sept. 11 responder focuses on human kindness then and now 09/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 10, 2011 4:31am]
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