Faith Smith sat on the covered porch of her Harrison, Tennessee, home Tuesday, surrounded by photos her husband took of the rubble left at Ground Zero after the 9/11 terror attacks and memorabilia from the Fire Department of the City of New York.
Her husband, Michael Smith Jr., was one of the many firefighters who got the call when the twin towers fell 17 years ago.
He died on Christmas Day in 2015 from complications brought on from inhaling dust and fumes while searching for victims.
On Sept. 11, 2001, Faith Smith watched the towers fall on the television with the rest of the country — only the Slate Hill, New York, resident knew her husband would be immediately deployed, along with other first responders, and her life would never be the same.
"It was like a bad dream you don't wake up from," she said.
She picked her children up from school, went home and waited for an update from her husband. She heard from him before he left, but after that, there was no word from him until the second day.
"I knew he was all right," she said. " You couldn't expect to hear from these men. My husband would go and find a corner and sleep there for a couple of hours and get back and do the same stuff."
On Tuesday, Americans joined her across the country in looking back on 9/11 with tears and somber tributes as President Donald Trump hailed "the moment when America fought back" on one of the hijacked planes used as weapons in the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil.
The president and first lady Melania Trump joined an observance at the Sept. 11 memorial near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where one of the jetliners crashed after 40 passengers and crew members realized what was happening and several passengers tried to storm the cockpit.
Calling it "the moment when America fought back," Trump said the fallen "took control of their destiny and changed the course of history."
They "joined the immortal ranks of American heroes," said Trump.
At the Pentagon, Vice President Mike Pence recalled the heroism of service members and civilians who repeatedly went back into the Pentagon to rescue survivors.
The terrorists "hoped to break our spirit, and they failed," he said.
The 9/11 commemorations are by now familiar rituals, centered on reading the names of the dead. But each year at ground zero, victims' relatives infuse the ceremony with personal messages of remembrance, inspiration and concern.
"We lost a lot of friends and a lot of neighbors," Faith Smith said, remembering countless funerals, sometimes more than one a day.
"Some people's families have never been found — not one bone, nothing," she said, recalling one woman who could only bury a baby tooth she kept from when her son was a child.
For Faith Smith, one of her biggest concerns, she said, is that once the anniversary passes, people forget about those who are still going through the aftermath of the attacks.
"Every year after Sept. 11, Sept. 12 comes, and people think that that's the end of it until next year. That is so untrue," she said. "What about all the people that are sitting in [a doctor's] office, up in New York, and they're sick, sick, sick, loaded with cancers, just like my husband?
"My husband had just turned 56 years old when he died."
Michael Smith is just one of thousands of people who developed complications in the years that followed 9/11. Researchers have documented elevated rates of respiratory ailments, post-traumatic stress disorder and other illnesses among people who spent time in the rubble.
About 38,500 people have applied to a compensation fund, and over $3.9 billion in claims have been approved.
Michael Smith was diagnosed with pancreatic and gastroesophageal cancer in 2014. By the time doctors caught it, the cancer had spread to his thyroid, his lung, both lobes of his liver, in one kidney and his pancreas. It continued to spread, and eventually reached his bones and his brain.
"He had five mutations of cancers that were scientifically unclassified at that time," Faith Smith said. "It was traumatizing."
But even then, Faith Smith said her husband would be willing to do it all over again, and she would be right there to support him through it all.
At ground zero, work is to begin soon on a pathway honoring rescue and recovery workers. It will serve as a way to recognize those who became sick or died from exposure to toxins released when the Trade Center's twin towers collapsed.
When Michael Smith died, Faith Smith was added to the group of police and fire widows of New York City.
"It's like joining a group that you don't want to belong to," she said. " 9/11 was my husband's reality, and now it has become my reality. This is something that you can't — how could you ever forget this? It's not just Sept. 11 for us. This is something that, this is our life now."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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