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'We still battle it every day' | 9/11 response volunteer passes keepsakes on to Bethlehem Fire Department

He searched the rubble for months, hoping to give closure to hundreds of families. He now shares his story in hopes that America never forgets that September day.

BETHLEHEM, N.C. — A Long Island native who volunteered in the search efforts at ground zero kept a box of keepsakes from the tragic scene for 20 years. Now, they rest at an Alexander County fire department where he knows they'll be appreciated. 

As soon as Mike Koyles opens his mouth, his accent bellows New York. 

"You know, I ran around Manhattan chasing movie stars most of my life," he said. "It was a playground for me."

But there were no games to be played, or fun to be had on Sept. 11, 2001. 

"It was just a horror show," Koyles explained. 

Koyles was working as a welder 200 yards away, he says, when the first plane hit. Then, a second strike. 

"It was so loud," he remembered. "We didn't know which way to run."

The streets quickly turned into chaos as thousands of people ran in different directions. 

"Debris was falling people were jumping," Koyles recalled. "Once the buildings fell, everything was black. You couldn't see."

Koyles could have easily stayed home with his loved ones over the next few weeks and months. Instead, he knew he had to help. 

"I did it for the country I love," he said. 

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For months after the terrorist attacks, he joined thousands of volunteers to help search for any potential survivors, gather the dead, and start cleaning up the debris left behind. 

"There were no full bodies," he said. "It was just parts. That's all you found were parts."

As the nation remembers every September, Koyles remembers the images and sounds seared into his mind every day. 

"I can't forget," he said. "I don't cry as much as I used to, but my heart hurts."

From the scene 20 years ago, he has a box full of keepsakes found during his volunteer efforts. Pieces of concrete from the rubble, a piece of steel ripped apart, his hard hat, kneepads, jacket, gloves, a subway sign with 'World Trade Center' printed on it. 

There's a bottle of dust from the scene, too. 

"There are parts of people in there, there's just no doubt in my mind," he said. 

To him, it's time to pass the box on to those who will keep the memories alive. 

"I've carried it around for 20 years," Koyles said. "It was about time I put it somewhere where somebody would appreciate it."

After meeting his local fire department in Bethlehem, he started to volunteer. He's not healthy enough to fight fires, but he does what he can. 

"I can hook up the hose to the high hydrogen, check their blood pressure when they come out with the air tank," he explained. 

Knowing the department didn't have any keepsakes from 9/11 like so many others, he offered them his own. 

"It's not for me, it's for the people that lost, you know, the loved ones," he said. "And the guys who are still dying, the guys that have cancer that have leukemia," he added, making reference to the many who have died or become sick from breathing in toxins during the aftermath. 

Koyles is one of them, already surviving 32 surgeries to remove tumors or help him breathe easier. 

Through it all, he continues to give back, hoping nobody will ever forget. 

"All those people who gave their lives, even the volunteers who were there afterwards," he said. "All these people, we still battle it every day."

Contact Hunter Sáenz at hsaenz@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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