WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Most Americans remember horrific videos and photos from the attacks against the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
But for Frank Caminiti, a retired detective with the Essex County Sheriff's Office K-9/Bomb Unit in New Jersey, the tragedy has taken a toll on his mental and physical health that continues to this day.
"It really hasn't gotten any better for me," said Caminiti. "It was chaos."
Caminiti responded to the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and spent two weeks assisting with recovery efforts.
"I was a detective assigned to the bomb squad, and I happened to be on assignment that morning," Caminiti said about Sept. 11, 2001.
"Every morning, I drove over the highway, which looks right down into lower Manhattan," Caminiti said. "At that point, I saw just a little trickle of smoke coming out of the top of one of the towers of the World Trade Center."
While driving, Caminiti turned on his New York Police Department radio, and began to hear the chaotic chatter that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
"I was very familiar with the World Trade Center, and it was a big part of my life," said Caminiti, who used to work as a police officer in NYC.
When Caminiti returned to base, the NYPD bomb squad requested that his team respond.
"My dispatch told us to gear up a lot of equipment and be prepared to be there a long time," he said.
He ended up spending two weeks there, and it's time that has afflicted him ever since.
"I remember just standing there with my mouth open and looking," said Caminiti. "I could just not believe what I was seeing. I thought I was looking at a movie screen. I said, 'This can't be real.'"
The experiences are etched into his memory, but exposure to the air, including toxic dust, smoke, and debris, has left damaging impacts on his body.
"I remember walking down the street and it was nothing for like 10 or 12 blocks, just being white ash, little pieces of paper," said Caminiti. "I had no mask. I had nothing. I went to one of the medical units, and I got myself a little dust mask, or surgical mask, but that didn't really stop anything from coming in."
He remembers a deputy chief asking an Environmental Protection Agency staff member if there was anything to worry about, and he was told there was no reason to be concerned that day.
"After two weeks, I had enough. I couldn't take it mentally or physically anymore," said Caminiti. "I was spitting up what looked like plaster so it started to concern me. I had two young kids at the time."
Health problems since 9/11
Two months after 9/11, Caminiti said he got his first sign that health problems could be in his future in the form of a letter in the mail.
The letter had a stark warning: "To all personnel who responded to the World Trade Ccenter, this is what you've been exposed to and you need to get yourself to a hospital right away and start medical testing," Caminiti said. "So that kind of freaked me out a little bit."
Caminiti, who moved to Wilmington in 2005, faces kidney problems, including unexplained enlargement, as well as sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), sinus polyps, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"I say to (my wife), 'I don't ever want to have to go through this again,'" said Caminiti, "'and I don't want our children to go through this again, so I think that it's time we move here to Wilmington.'"
Caminiti's kidney problems are not covered by the World Trade Center (WTC) Health Program, a government program that offers medical care for people exposed on 9/11.
His nephrologist suspects his growing kidneys are related to a 9/11 exposure. When he went for his most recent 9/11 testing, he was told others in the area also were experiencing kidney issues.
"They couldn't elaborate on it, of course, but they said, 'You're not the only one' so it's gotta be something going on," Caminiti said.
WECT has reached out to the WTC Health Program to learn about the status of kidney-related medical problems from 9/11 exposures.
"There is no current petition under review to add "kidney enlargement" (or any kidney condition) to the List of World Trade Center (WTC)-Related Health Conditions (List)," a spokesperson wrote in an email in response to WECT's question.
"However, the World Trade Center Health Program did previously consider "Kidney Damage" (Petition 3) and found that there was insufficient evidence to add it to the List at the time," the spokesperson wrote.
The WTC Health Program may cover kidney enlargement for a person if it "is a side effect of treatment of or progression of a certified WTC-related health condition," the spokesperson wrote.
"Every six months, I have to get an ultrasound," Caminiti said. "I've been to two or three doctors on that specific ailment, and they have no idea why my kidneys are growing."
Staggering number of deaths since 9/11
John Feal works with a team to keep track of 9/11 exposure-related deaths among responders to the attack.
More than 2,000 first responders have died from medical issues related to exposures since 9/11, said Feal.
In 2017, 141 first responders died from health-related exposures, Feal said and in 2018, 138 first responders have died.
"The government's never going to do that," said Feal about why he keeps track of the deaths. "They're never going to take responsibility."
There are about 100 members in the Wilmington 10-13 Club, which includes retired NYPD members, retired federal law enforcement and any retired law enforcement officer. They meet every third Tuesday of each month.
If you are a 9/11 responder or have a loved one who is, contact WECT's Ben Smart to share your story.