CHICAGO — They hopped in vans and borrowed cars, driving all night to get to ground zero: Hundreds of first responders from Illinois volunteered after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, digging through dusty rubble for survivors.
A decade later, the memories are just as fresh for them and countless others who were touched by the events. A suburban Chicago mother who lost her daughter in the twin towers says she can't forget. A firefighter remains troubled by thoughts of children studying at a grammar school near the World Trade Center. And a Chicago police officer was inspired to enlist, becoming one of thousands of Illinois residents deployed overseas in two subsequent wars.
Numerous commemorative events — including conversations in churches and mosques, picnics, candle light vigils and a ceremony honoring first responders at Chicago's Soldier Field — are planned this weekend to mark the anniversary.
"It just never goes away," said Marge Sauer, a Wheaton woman whose 48-year-old daughter was among the nearly 3,000 victims killed in New York City, Washington, and Shanksville, Pa.
Susan M. Sauer was working for Marsh & McLennan Companies, Inc., when the planes hit the twin towers. The woman with a love of cooking had dreamed of traveling to 50 countries before turning 50. By November of that year, she would have reached 49.
That's the type of detail that has stuck with her mother, a widow who still lives in the house where she raised her daughter. Since the attacks, Sauer has been to New York twice, but she said she can't make the trip anymore, physically or emotionally. She planned to spend Sunday with friends.
"It should not have happened," Sauer said, her voice quivering. "I can't picture her gone."
Talking about the attacks still brings tears to the eyes of Deputy District Chief Steve Chikerotis, too. He's been with the Chicago Fire Department for more than three decades and was among 100 firefighters who drove all night to get to New York on Sept. 12, 2001. He went without hesitation. Several New York City firefighters were friends.
The next eight days were a blur of 12-hour shifts in heat and almost no visibility. He and other firefighters slept in a damaged grammar school near the towers.
"I still get haunted. I picture these innocent school kids sitting in their desks when this devastation happened," he said. "It's something kids should not have to do."
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk estimated about 500 first responders from Illinois, including firefighters in Chicago and Springfield, volunteered at ground zero in the weeks after the attacks. He will host a ceremony honoring about 130 of them Sunday at Soldier Field before the Bears face the Atlanta Falcons.
"These Americans, while they're brave every day, they dropped everything and drove hundreds of miles," said Kirk, a Naval reservist. "Their country really needed them."
The attacks changed the lives of many.
Chicago police officer Kevin Beatovic had always had an interest in the military, but he enlisted in the U.S. Navy after returning from a week of volunteering at ground zero.
"It's time for me to step up," Beatovic remembered thinking at the time. "The attack happened and it rekindled that torch."
Beatovic was deployed twice in the past decade, including one year in Iraq. Thousands have served in the two wars since the attacks. The National Guard alone sent about 10,000 Illinois residents to Iraq and Afghanistan, some of them more than once.
As of last month, 237 Illinois residents had been killed in the wars and another 1,536 were wounded, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
But those touched by the Sept. 11 attacks say there were encouraging moments too.
Beatovic said countless strangers in New York thanked him. Sauer said friends and family poured out love and support.
Chikerotis remembered the kindness of a college student who drove 100 miles out of her way to buy the firefighters coffee. And he remembers taking a break to see the Statue of Liberty.
"As silly as it sounds, it was something we had to do," he said. "Looking at this big beautiful lady out there in the middle of the bay. It was the first time I noticed (that week) that there was even blue sky anywhere."
Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen.
Associated Press writer David Mercer contributed to this report from Champaign.