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Veterans of Sept. 11 find themselves in another devastated city

NEW ORLEANS—Don Gardner hangs an American flag on his front porch and looks to God, country and the city of New York for inspiration.

Today, Sept. 11, four years after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Gardner's New Orleans is the one counting its dead and wondering how it will ever recover. But Gardner, a Vietnam veteran who lives in the Lower Garden District, is confident the Big Easy will come back strong, just like the Big Apple did.

"I imagine the same thing was going through their heads, those people in New York, just not believing what happened," he said as he sorted through canned goods stacked in his living room. "I look at the way New York—it wasn't quite the devastation we had—but they pulled through it, so we'll pull through this."

To help make that happen, almost 300 New York Police Department officers and dozens of the city's firefighters are spending the fourth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in this stricken city.

At first, Lt. Frank Leeb, a New York firefighter working in the French Quarter, said there's no way to compare the two disasters. Then he thought for a minute and noted that many New Orleans police officers and firefighters are in fact facing struggles similar to what his firefighters did four years ago.

"These guys had to worry about where their families were, if they were safe, and they were working nonstop," he said. "We've been through that."

New York police officer Oscar Rivera, patrolling New Orleans' Mid-City neighborhoods, agreed that "9-11 is totally different than this. Totally different."

"I think the devastation here is a lot greater," he said.

Rivera watched the events in New Orleans unfold on television for a week before he volunteered to come.

"For me personally, it was something I needed to do," he said.

Rivera and fellow New York officer Stephen Brooks spent Saturday afternoon talking to residents who refused to leave New Orleans.

"We seemed to put a smile on people's faces," Brooks said.

The New York officers will hold a small ceremony Sunday to commemorate the four-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Several military units are expected to attend.

New York police officers Kenneth McNamee and Daniel MacSweeney plan to be there. Neither would say where the officers will gather so they can avoid the media crush that their department often encounters.

"We're always in the spotlight," said MacSweeney, 28.

New Yorkers aren't focusing their assistance solely on New Orleans. Chris Edwards and John Seiler, a pair of stocky, bald, tattooed retired New York City firefighters, drove from Manhattan to Biloxi, Miss., in a Red Cross truck Monday.

The two had worked at "Ground Zero," after Sept. 11, 2001, desperately combing through the wreckage of the World Trade Center to find friends, firemen, survivors, anything.

"The trip that we're taking ... we're not holy rollers or anything. I'm not on a mission," said Edwards, 46, who retired from Engine 81 in the Bronx recently because of medical issues. "I just feel like we have unfinished business to help out the people down here who helped us, whether they was there helping or just here praying for us."

The two are a part of the Disaster Action Response Team, a group of retired firefighters who assist the Red Cross in nearly every disaster. Their job here has been to bring supplies to the neighborhoods most affected.

For them, this is also a bit of therapy for a wound that still hasn't closed, Edwards said.

"People still come up to us and give us hugs and say, `sorry,' four years later," said Edwards, sporting an FDNY shirt. "When you come down here and see the devastation, it brings back bad memories."

"We had it bad in 9-11, but this is worse," said Seiler, 48, who sports a large "9-11-01" tattoo on his left forearm.

"What we had in 16 acres," agreed Edwards, "they have in three counties."

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(Nesmith reports for The Miami Herald, Estwick for the Akron Beacon-Journal. Also contributing were Chris Gray of The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Michael Newsom and Joshua Norman of the Biloxi Sun-Herald.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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