Published: Sep 08, 2011 10:27 PM EDT
Updated: Sep 08, 2011 10:42 PM EDT

COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. - A nearly 100-year-old firefighter's helmet in Naples led one former New York City firefighter to return to his roots, just one day before the September 11th attacks.

"I took this picture of the Trade Center, isn't that beautiful?"

Walking into Jerry Sanford's office at North Naples Fire Station 45 is like walking into a mini-museum of sorts.

"This is all of the firehouses that I worked in.  Started in Harlem with the Vinegar Hill gang back in the 60s," Sanford says as he points to a plaque with all his badges.  From Harlem, to Brooklyn, to Staten Island, he worked for the New York City Fire Department for 30 years.

"There's a rivalry which burroughs is the busiest you know," Sanford jokes.

His walls and shelves all tell a story.  Many of them all go back to one day.

"This was shortly after the attack," he tells us as he points to a picture on the wall.  "You can see these are the members of the New York City Emerald Society Pipe and Drum band, and they were looking for one of their guys that was still missing."

After retiring to Naples, Sanford soon found himself back in the firehouse, working as a media liaison.

"When I got hired by Chief Tobin in 2000, he said you know we have an old New York City fire helmet here at one of our fire stations.  I said you got to be kidding, he says no.  Looked like, I don't know a 100 years old.  It's got 42 in red on it.  So I looked at it, and I knew it was 42 truck from the Bronx."

Sanford was invited to return the helmet during a ceremony for the station's new building in the South Bronx.

"He says, oh Jerry we've got it all arranged.  It's going to be September 10th.  I said ok. I mean at times I have to pause."

September 10, 2001, Sanford and three others from North Naples Fire spent the day with people that would loose their lives in less than 24 hours.

Bill Feehan and Pete Ganci were life long friends of Sanford's.  They both perished on 9/11.  He looks at their pictures every day in his office.

"All these men I worked with for years, I was reunited, including Father Judge.  He said his last mass."

The four men left New York, headed back to Florida the morning of September 11th, just two hours before the first plane hit.  They got the news while switching planes in Pittsburgh.

"I called headquarters and I got the girls, and they told me they were all gone.  The people I was just with.  And they told me Father Judge was dead.  Ganci and Feehan's bodies were found."

Less than a week later Sanford returned, ready to dig though the rubble, but instead was assigned to do something else.  Work with the media once again.

"They all wanted to go into a firehouse, talk to a firefighter, meet a widow.  You know they haven't even found these guys.  They got on a truck, they went out, and they never came back.  So you can understand how difficult it was for someone to even talk about that."

Sanford knew or worked with 170 people that died that day.

"You know two 110 story buildings were incinerated, including people.  The smell from that site is something that I have never smelt before, nor do I every hope to smell it again."

He saw the towers while they were being built, and watched them fall.  For Sanford, some wounds will never heal.

"The worst thing that ever happened in my life.  Absolutely nothing comes anywhere near what happened there."

Since 9/11, Sanford has been very active with local organizations that pay tribute to the people lost, like the Freedom Memorial in Naples.  Although he returns to New York every year, Sanford says this will be the first year he plans to visit the site and the memorial.

RENEE STOLL
renee.stoll@winktv.com