NEW YORK - Nearly twenty years later, a 9/11 first responder is sharing her story for the first time.
"It was as close to a war zone as I would ever see.," said registered nurse Cecelia "Cece" Doykos.
On Sept. 11 2001, she was in Boston dropping her son off at school, and hoping to catch a flight home to the San Francisco area.
"I went to the airport at 6 a.m. and tried to get on an earlier flight," Doykos said. "I had a Cheap Seats ticket, so American Airlines was going to make me pay $150 dollars, so I didn't get on that plane."
That plane was American Airlines Flight 11. It was the first plane to hit the World Trade Center Towers.
"My phone rang and it was my husband and he was crying because he thought I was on that plane," Doykos said.
When flights across the United States were cancelled, she rented a car and met her twin sister outside New York.
Both are registered nurses and together they have traveled the world to assist with eye surgeries.
"As I'm driving to New York they're calling [on the radio] for ophthalmologists because they needed people for eye care," said Doykos.
With their medical equipment packed, Doykos and her sister headed to a makeshift triage center at a local high school.
"I arrived. Put on my scrubs. This is the scrub that I wore there, I haven't had it on in 20 years," Doykos said, pointing to her American flag medical blouse.
When no survivors arrived for treatment, the sisters traveled to Ground Zero, less than 24 hours after the attacks.
"When I walked in at first, to see it, there were lights flashing, and sirens going from the taxi's… there was water, there was fire, there was dust," she said.
Doykos kept the helmet, respirator and cardboard "MEDICAL" sign she made.
It is still covered in dust.
"You could only be there working on the site for a short period of time before your eyes were completely caked from the dust…. We had IV bags hung up with saline and we'd rinse out their eyes," Doykos said.
The sisters, along with other medical professionals set up their eye washing triage in a vacant bar.
There was no electricity and the windows had been blown out.
"A siren would go off and there would be three beeps or a whistle and you'd have to run because they said that things were unstable.
So I have pictures of people and you'd be in the street and you would just run," she said.
Only family and close friends have seen the photos Doykos took during her five days treating first responders at Ground Zero.
She hasn’t spoken publicly about the experience until now.
"There aren’t words to describe what it was like. These were the tallest buildings and now they are dust. Everything was dust. Everything. There wasn't glass. Everything left behind was either iron, shoes, believe it or not the police and everyone would pick up shoes," said Doykos.
Twenty years later, Doykos is now able to unpack her memories and mementos. Twenty years later, she hopes Americans haven’t forgotten Sept. 11, 2001.
"It brought out the best in people across the whole United States, and there's no politics involved, but people caring and loving each other," said Doykos.
Doykos was recognized by the Red Cross as a Hometown Hero.
Since then, her sister has been diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, a type of cancer that’s been commonly diagnosed in 9/11 first responders.