When Lutherville resident John Gochnauer saw the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on television on Sept. 11, 2001, his heart was in his throat.
In 1995, he had retired after 29 years with the Baltimore County Fire Department and had spent the majority of that time in the Fire Rescue Academy, where he helped devise plans to handle fires in the tall buildings that had begun cropping up in Towson.
"I knew what those firefighters would be doing," he said. "I knew there would be fatalities."
Gochnauer, who was 64 then, had been a member of the Lansdowne Volunteer Fire Department for 34 years before he moved to Lutherville and joined the Lutherville Volunteer Fire Company. He is now its immediate past president.
He also spent 23 years in the Air National Guard dealing with crashes, disaster preparedness and photography work before he retired as with the rank of master sergeant in 1984.
Needless to say, in September 2001, he had the credentials to be part of the management support group for Maryland's National Disaster Medical System team, which was on its way to New York by the afternoon of Sept. 11.
He would spend three months there.
At Ground Zero immediately after the terror attacks, Gochnauer's job was night supervisor of the medical tents set up to treat rescue workers, construction workers and utility personnel. He worked near the remnants of the World Trade Center — despite falling shards of grass that threatened to slice open their tent fabric coverings.
He recalls expressing condolences to a New York City firefighter who was manning a pumper to wet down the hot spots, when the man asked him a question. He had seen a member of the bucket brigade wearing a San Diego helmet and coat, and wondered what he was doing there.
Gochnauer told him the San Diego Fire Department sent three busloads of men. The NYC responder was amazed.
"New York City is the biggest fire department in world," the man told Gochnauer. "It's No. 1."
"Baltimore County may be only No. 198," Gochnauer said, "but when New York has a problem, (we) step in. We can be separated by miles and miles, but it's family."
He said firefighters learn to block out death to work effectively. But Gochnauer acknowledges that sometimes, he teared up in those days — especially when a firefighter's body was discovered, and fellow firefighters lined up to make a path and saluted as he was carried past.
He had always thought of New York as a place where people thought, "We're New York City, and we can take care of ourselves," he said. "It was sad to see them brought to their knees."
He came home just once over his three-month stint — right before Thanksgiving.
"I wanted to get back up there," he said.
When he finally left New York, he felt satisfied, he said. For a man who had devoted so much of his life to the fire service, those three months were his way of saluting colleagues who gave everything to that duty.
"I knew I had performed a service to New York City and the firefighters," Gochnauer said. "We can never forget the sacrifices they made."