9/11 first responders begin to feel attack’s long-term health effects

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Rob Serra was just 21 and had not even started in his new job as a New York City firefighter when terrorists brought down the World Trade Center’s twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I just got out of the academy on Sept. 10,” Serra told NBC News last week. He spotted the burning skyscrapers from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, called his firefighter brother for guidance and hopped on a bus to get as close as possible.

“I had no idea what I was doing. I had never been to a fire before,” Serra said.

He joined the crowds of first responders pawing through the chunks of building material, breathing in the pulverized dust loaded with cement, asbestos, lead, glass fibers, dioxins and other chemicals.

“Everyone had a half inch of white paste on their face,” Serra recalls.

Now, 17 years later, he and thousands of others are still paying for the time they spent in Lower Manhattan.

“I do remember thinking that this is probably going to kill me,” Serra said.

“You figure two buildings full of glass, asbestos, steel. You could taste it,” he added. “I hope I have a lot of years left, but common sense and reason tells me I don’t.”