New York City firefighter Steve Marsar was off duty when hijacked planes struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. But when he heard about the attacks, he went straight to the site, arriving moments after the towers collapsed.
Three hundred forty-three New York City firefighters died at the World Trade Center that day. Since then, almost 3,500 firefighters have retired. Hundreds more have gone on medical leave.
As the New York City Fire Department works to rebuild itself, Marsar has risen quickly up the ranks, assuming a greater leadership role. Today, he's a 44-year-old captain for the department and a member of the city's incident-management team, a small, highly trained group set up after Sept. 11.
Marsar says becoming a captain and joining the incident-management team were natural career steps. He had already been gearing up for a promotion. The department lost hundreds of experienced people in the attacks, paving the way for the next generation of leaders.
"There were people that didn't have the opportunity to do the things that I'm doing," he says. "You know, some of them because of health effects, some of them psychological effects, some of them just … had no interest in it."
About 1,500 firefighters have been treated for respiratory ailments since the Sept. 11 attacks. Thousands more have gone for counseling services. Marsar acknowledges he's been lucky.
This year, he and his wife Nancy Stamatopoulos, whom he met shortly after the attacks, went to a counseling session for emergency responders. They filled out questionnaires and met with someone about the risk of psychological problems.
Stamatopoulos says her husband's questionnaire troubled the counselor. "She said, 'Steve I don't know how to say this, but' -- and she rifled through the papers, and she said --'you're off the charts."
On paper, it appeared to counselors that Marsar was a ticking time bomb.
"They didn't know what to think, because on paper, they were saying, 'We have to really watch this guy,'" Marsar says. "And then when they met me, they were like, 'Who took this?' Because they didn't think I was the same person that answered these questions, you know."
Joking aside, Marsar acknowledges he's had a lot to cope with in the past five years. He also spent his spare time helping the family of a co-worker who died. But he says his work keeps him sane.
"I think being busy helps. Also, your outlook," he says. "I don't know, it's hard to say: Why does somebody catch a cold and somebody else doesn't? And that's the way it is with mental health."
In addition to his job as a captain with the FDNY, Marsar volunteers for his local fire department. And he teaches every week at the city's firefighter academy.
Despite the hectic pace of his life, Marsar says that not a day goes by when he doesn't think about those who perished on Sept. 11. He still wears a metal bracelet with the names of his fallen co-workers.
"I'm very proud of what the guys in my company did and, you know, I'm proud to have known them," he says. "It's a horrible thing, what happened to them, and I don't want other people to forget."
By moving ahead, he believes he's honoring their memory.
Beth Fertig is a senior reporter with member station WNYC in New York.