On September 11, it is a common thing for people to recall exactly where they were when the attacks in 2001 took place. But who can recall exactly where they were for a full nine months after the attacks?
Don Carson can. The native of Oak Ridge and current Knoxville resident was in charge of the hazardous material program for crane operators and heavy-equipment workers who removed the debris from Ground Zero.
"We did not call it 'ground zero.' We called it 'the pile.' Guys that worked up there still call it that. There were more than two million tons of rubble we cleaned out of there," said Carson.
In recent years, Carson has found the emotional strength to mark September 11 by digging up a pile of memorabilia and memories from his time at the World Trade Center site.
"I showed up on the morning of September 14, 2001. I left on September 12, 2002. In these albums I have pictures in here that I don't know if anybody else has. It was basically from the time of the attack all the way through the clean-up," said Carson.
Carson flipped through photographs of city blocks covered entirely by paper from inside the fallen towers.
"There was nothing but paper faxes, documents, emails, and anything else from those offices. I was in total shock the first time I saw it," said Carson.
Carson pointed to an overhead shot of excavators removing debris from the base of the towers.
"That says it all. There's five excavators working side-by-side. That job never stopped. It went 24-7 for nine months."
The date that stands along with September 11th for Carson is May 30, 2002. That is when workers removed the last steel beam from the towers. The beam is now included as part of the permanent museum. For Carson, it was a banner day that he remembers with the banner of freedom.
"I have an American flag from that day. This is something I only put out once a year. I keep it properly stored, but bring it out on September 11. When we brought the last beam out, Mayor Bloomberg gave me this flag."
Carson accumulated a pile of memorabilia and encounters with celebrities from all walks of life.
"I would take people in to see the site. There were famous athletes, actors, entertainers, race car drivers, you name it. I got to meet President Bush and have him tell us he was proud of the job we were doing. I got to meet a lot of people I never would have met."
But the task of tearing through hundreds of demolished stories of debris and victim body parts from the towers took a toll on Carson.
"The worst part was seeing the families and children of people in there. They all wanted closure. When we first arrived, it was still a rescue operation. Then it turned into a recovery operation," said Carson. "There was a lady who had a young son and he had a badge around his neck with his father's picture on it. She handed him to me and he hugged me. I remember that. It's hard to talk about without getting emotional, but I remember that."
Carson said he continues to struggle discussing many aspects of the clean-up. He gingerly mentions the suicides of friends who worked at Ground Zero.
"The post-trauma stress is for real. When your adrenaline is going 24-7 for a long time, it's very hard to decompress. I don't know that I have yet and it has been 12 years. It's still kind of an open wound. You get so focused on doing the job and completing the task. Your adrenaline is flowing like you're running through the T (at the beginning of Tennessee football games) and it stays like that non-stop. There's just no way to get back into a normal rhythm. I know I did not handle it well," said Carson.
While Carson still carries the emotional burden associated with carrying away the debris of a national tragedy, he says it has become easier to discuss with time. He also looks back with pride at his role in helping the nation heal after a terrible attack.
"This flag means a lot to me. It's a symbol of what can be done and what the country did to draw together. It was a very dangerous job. Very dangerous with all of that heavy equipment working in all of that steel. There were more airborne contaminants than I can name and Freon from those huge coolers in those towers. But I was proud to be there and I'd go back again."
Carson said he still has many fond memories of New York, including attending the World Series baseball game when then-President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch. Carson also continues to visit New York because his son and daughter-in-law live in lower-Manhattan near the World Trade Center.