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Former Marine Sergeant Details Being At Ground Zero To His Youngest Son

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Time now for StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative. After serving four years, former Marine Sergeant Jason Thomas was discharged from active duty in 2000, but he stepped up to serve in another way a year later, September 11, 2001, as two planes crashed into the World Trade Center just miles from where he lived. He spoke recently over StoryCorps Connect with his youngest son, Jason Christian Thomas, who was born after 9/11, and this was the first time they'd talked about the details of the day.

JASON CHRISTIAN THOMAS: So tell me what happened on 9/11.

JASON THOMAS: My mother would always say, you are your brother's keeper, and never leave your brother behind. So I grabbed my uniform, and I drove into the city. When I got to the World Trade Center, all I could see was other people running in the opposite direction. And they're telling me, go the other way. But as a Marine, I knew that we never go backwards. We always go forward. The ash was so hot, it felt like sandpaper running across my body, and the rubber on the bottom of my boot would sink into the rebar. I would yell down into different crevices of the rubble, this is the United States Marines; is anyone down there?

Finally, hours later, I got a voice back. I just felt like I was going to die if I went into the hole. It was a very tough decision because your sister was just born, and she did not know her dad. But I decided I'm definitely going in. I remember having a camera and taking a couple photos of myself. I put it on a high point of the debris, hoping that someone would find that camera if I did not make it out of that hole.

And we ended up getting him out. It was the greatest feeling. But, you know, I didn't tell anyone of what I did because I just wanted it all to go away. I would have nightmares every night, and I knew that it was important mentally to be there for you guys. So I felt I should just bury my experience of what I did, what I saw.

JASON CHRISTIAN THOMAS: Hearing you talk about this really puts things into perspective because learning about it in school, it's not the same as hearing you talk about it.

JASON THOMAS: I was nervous because I didn't want the family to be affected by that day. You know, it wasn't until maybe five years ago, there was a firefighter that called me. He had found my camera and didn't have any of the pictures developed until recently, and he recognized my face in one of them. What a relief. That was just like a piece of the puzzle being put together.

JASON CHRISTIAN THOMAS: I'm proud that you were there helping people.

JASON THOMAS: Well, I appreciate that, Jason. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENDING SATELLITES' "WE'RE FROM NEAR AND FAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.