On Sept. 11, 2001, our nation was attacked in a cold and cowardly manner.

In New York City at 8:45 a.m., the first hijacked plane — American Airlines Flight 11 — slammed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower. Shortly afterward, at 9:03 a.m., in a blur viewed by millions on live television, the second plane — United Airlines Flight 175 — sliced through the South Tower. Many of us first responders were on duty that day, watching events unfold with full realization of the dangers our brothers and sisters were about to face.

By the end of that morning, nearly 3,000 people would perish in the collapse of both towers, including 343 members of the New York City Fire Department and 73 New York police officers and rescue workers. As a nation, we must never forget the events and sacrifices made that day.

In the immediate days and months after the attack, we came together as a country to support the initial rescue attempts.

We watched as the arduous task of recovering the remains of those that died continued. We learned about the personal lives of the civilians who were lost. We attended the myriad funerals of the heroes who had worked their way up the stairs of those towers to save as many lives as possible, many of us wondering if we could have found the same type of courage that these brave first responders had shown.

The events of that day changed forever how we went about our daily lives. It also made us look differently at the women and men who serve as our nation’s first responders and forced many to realize a newfound respect for the sacrifices these people make as part of their daily job.

Thousands of firefighters, police officers, engineers, steelworkers and construction crews came together and worked the acrid pile of ground zero to recover the remains of those who perished. They selflessly exposed themselves to a toxic mix of chemicals and pulverized dust that would take a permanent toll on their health and well-being.

As remains of a first responder were discovered in that twisted steel, all work at ground zero would come to a standstill. An eerie silence would prevail as they were reverently carried out of that smoldering pile, carried on a flag-draped stretcher through the lines of these workers who held a respectful salute.

These men and women were our domestic veterans. They came together in our nation’s time of need, doing what had to be done. Their actions on that pile were a daily reminder for us that we will stand together as a nation.

But as with many things, time tends to erode our memory. The unconditional support showed to first responders by many elected officials in the days after 9/11 slowly faded to facile praise. When it came time to take care of them, as one after another came down with cancer, respiratory problems or other health-related issues, our elected officials seemed to have forgotten that we, as a nation, have a responsibility to take care of their health needs.

It took 10 years for Washington to pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Safety Act, which would give a measure of health care to those who worked at ground zero. In that period of time, the names of another 70 FDNY firefighters who worked at the recovery site have been engraved on the department’s 9/11 Memorial Wall, so the death toll continues to grow.

If not for the relentless behind-the-scenes work of Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, that bill would have never passed the Senate on the last day of Congress in the winter of 2010. Just as we take care of our military veterans who have served our country, we must continue to take care of those who sacrificed for us on that September morning in 2001.

Our nation has been shaped by historic and sometimes tragic events, such as Pearl Harbor and 9/11. It is the responsibility of those who lived during those times to honor the sacrifice of the fallen, take care of those who served, and ensure that future generations will never forget.

John Martell is a firefighter/paramedic with the Portland Fire Department and president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Maine, based in Etna.