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20 years after watching Sept. 11 unfold, retired NYPD officer shares his story in South Carolina

Cosmo Lubrano remembers vividly when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers. He remembers how so many stepped in to help. He remembers how some didn't come home.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Americans across the nation gather each year on Sept. 11 to remember the tragedy that took place on that day in 2001.

We hear the stories, we see the haunting images and we try to imagine what it must have been like in New York City on that fateful day.

But retired New York Police Department (NYPD) Officer Cosmo Lubrano was there. 

On Saturday, he traveled all the way to Columbia to remember the Americans and his own coworkers that were lost that day.

"The reality immediately set in. Someone has deliberately crashed two planes into the world trade center," he said of the attack that unfolded in front of him.

His memories are still detailed and vivid.

"At about 8:30 that morning, we went out for breakfast and we got back in the car, it was about a quarter to and the first plane had struck,” he said. “We didn't know until we turned the car on and broadcast over the radio was an officer screaming for the National Guard and military which wasn't something you normally hear."

Officer Lubrano suited up at the precinct and jumped into a van with about six other officers ready to head to Manhattan from Brooklyn.

"The sergeant we were with forgot his hat. Nobody was going to care but he was nervous about it because he was kind of new. We stopped at a neighboring precinct so he could borrow a hat from someone. And that little delay - at that point everybody was just going to the foot of the towers and running in,” he said. 

“That little delay they gave us a rallying point which was kind of away from the buildings, so we got out to Pike and South Street in Manhattan and, I mean, we could see people coming off the buildings," he added. "It was bad."

Officer Lubrano was assigned to the perimeter of the Twin Towers getting people to safety and keeping others out of harm's way. He was later able to go home to his family - unlike thousands of others that day.

He said that, for a while, he struggled with that.

"I'm happy I'm here now, but there was a stretch where when I did think about it,” he said. “I didn't feel like a first responder. I felt like someone who was just very lucky to get home that day."

It took time for him to come to terms with that feeling.

"I've come to realize that I was spared for a reason and I'm very happy to be around and share my experience with everybody," he said.