NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — This year, we will mark 20 years since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

For one retired firefighter, the tragedy and a firefighter’s helmet called him home to New York to help.

In the heart of the South Bronx is Engine 73, Ladder 42, and in the hearts of firefighters at the Prospect Avenue fire house are the heroes lost on Sept. 11, 2001.

“What do you feel when you look around here?” CBS2’s Jenna DeAngelis asked retired FDNY firefighter Jerry Sanford.

“Oh, it’s just, it just floods back to me, looking at the house,” Sanford said.

The last time Sanford was inside the fire station was nearly 20 years ago and he says it all “started with a helmet.”

Retired FDNY firefighter Jerry Sanford with the helmet he says brought him back to New York City on Sept. 10, 2001 (Credit: CBS2)

“There’s the helmet, 1914. This is kind of amazing,” he said.

Sanford was working as a public information officer in Florida when a fire chief there showed him the antique helmet with the number 42 on it, which Sanford recognized.

“I knew it was from this fire house, from my former boss, fire commissioner Tom von Essen. This was his fire house,” Sanford said. “I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. Where am I? I’m in Naples, Florida. How could this be? How could a helmet get 1,500 miles away from here?'”

He made it his mission to bring it back to its home, doing so on Sept. 10, 2001, during a ribbon-cutting for the fire house, following renovations.

Sanford vividly remembers a beautiful ceremony with Father Mychal Judge, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and hundreds of firefighters.

“It’s just difficult to look up there, and I remember Father Judge being there … Who would know at that time that a number of the men that I was with that day, including Father Judge, were killed, like, 20 hours later?” Sanford said.

Sanford was already heading home the morning of 9/11 when he learned the Twin Towers were struck.

“The feeling I got, I just can’t explain, knowing that my brothers would be going in and going up, trying to get people out of there,” he said.

He felt compelled to return to New York, and he did to support his FDNY family.

These painful memories are hard to share, but he did with a companion who helped him turn his experience into a book, titled, “It Started With A Helmet.”

“Do you feel like you were meant to be here on Sept. 10, 2001?” DeAngelis asked.

“Yeah, I do. I mean, something, what put me in Naples, Florida. The Good Lord, I mean, he works in wonderful ways,” Sanford said.

“What do you want people to take away from your story?” DeAngelis asked.

“Never forget 9/11,” Sanford said.

Sanford says it’s so important for the younger generations to learn about 9/11. Through donations, he’s managed to get “It Started With A Helmet” to students all around the country.

If you’re wondering, the helmet ended up in Naples because a man donated it; it belonged to his father.

For more information about the book, visit itstartedwithahelmet.com.

If you would like to donate to help get the book to more classrooms, click here.

This story was originally published on Aug. 18, 2021.

Jenna DeAngelis