Mike Cortes tells his story as a first responder during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Brave Files.

I Didn’t Feel Brave At All: A First Responder Remembers 9/11

With Featured Guest

Mike Cortes


Blog divider

Mike Cortes tells his story as a first responder during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Brave Files.

I Didn’t Feel Brave At All: A First Responder Remembers 9/11

With Featured Guest

Mike Cortes


Blog divider

Top Takeaways From This Episode

The Day The World Changed, 9/11

18 years ago, the world changed forever. The attacks of 9/11 took the lives of thousands and forever altered the lives of millions all over the world. Today, we honor the victims and the heroes of the tragedy.

Remembering The Morning Of September 11, 2001

On September 11, 2001, Mike Cortes was a young firefighter in New York City. A recent graduate of the fire academy, he joined the New York City Fire Department just months prior. Remarkably, Mike wasn’t on duty that morning even though he’d been previously scheduled to work. The day before, Mike switched shifts with his buddy, Jimmy.

Mike learned of the first plane’s impact just like most of us, while watching TV. He was on the phone with his father when the second plane struck and it was then clear, America was under attack.

Undoubtedly in shock, his instincts and training kicked in. While the general population ran for safety, Mike and hundreds of other first responders bravely ran towards the unknown in the hopes of saving as many people as possible. The events about to unfold were, seemingly, impossible. No one could have predicted what would happen next.


Mike Cortes tells his story as a first responder during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Brave Files.

Searching For Survivors

Mike, alongside hundreds of first responders and community members, dug through debris in search of survivors. He described the scene as a pile of “junkyard wreckage about eight stories tall.” There were steel beams twisted like ribbon. Destruction and devastation were everywhere. For hours, days, and weeks, they dug in hopes of finding anyone who had become trapped when the towers fell. There was still hope they would find survivors. It’s a horrific scene forever burned into the memories of all who were there that day and those who watched, in horror, from all corners of the world.


Mike Cortes tells his story as a first responder during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Brave Files.

Together In Unity

The events of September 11, 2001, changed the world. Nothing is the same as before and the devastation will forever impact our nation. But, Mike hopes that by sharing his experience, you’ll cling to the humanity he experienced in the days following the attacks.

Mike recalls that it didn’t matter who you were or what you looked like; all people joined together in unity. A universal desire for community overpowered all else. We came together as a nation in an almost indescribable way. We found a common ground as individuals and embraced the importance of a deeper unity.

Mike Cortes tells his story as a first responder during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Brave Files.

Mike urges us to remember the unity.

He implores us to be as one, to support each other, to embrace each other and to live in light and love rather than anger and hatred. Mike shows us the power of healing and growing from trauma.

We each, most certainly, remember where we were on 9/11. Additionally, we know that day changed us – – as individuals and as a nation. The immense loss impacted our communities. And yet, we are here, stronger than ever.

Today we remember the lives lost. But we honor those lives by celebrating their legacies and loving one another.

Mike Cortes tells his story as a first responder during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Brave Files.

A Second Chance

It would be an understatement to say that the tragic acts of 9/11 greatly impacted Mike’s life. Not only did the trauma shape his future — emotionally and physically, but the lessons learned shifted his overall outlook on life.

He now lives with increased awareness; he lives with intention. Mike discovered the impact one person can have and knows that no one’s time on this earth is guaranteed.

What does Mike want to be remembered for?

He wants to impact people’s lives in a positive way and create a legacy of character and service.

So today, we honor the lives who were lost on September 11, 2001. We honor the families, the spouses, and children, who bravely carry on in the midst of immense grief and loss. It is in your honor that we carry on and live on purpose.

Remembering Jimmy Pappageorge

Mike carries the memory of his friend and shift partner, Jimmy Pappageorge.

Jimmy is the man who switched shifts with Mike. This, seemingly simple, schedule change forever altered both their lives.

Mike Cortes tells his story as a first responder during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Brave Files.

Below is a clipping from a news report after Jimmy was honored at the 9/11 memorial site and a photo of Jimmy and his fiance.

This Firefighter Hero WOD is dedicated to James Pappageorge, FDNY, Engine 23, who was killed on September 11, 2001.

Gina Pinos said she felt her fallen firefighter fiancé all around today as she clutched his picture at ground zero. “Just to hear his name is comforting,” Pinos said of former fiancé James Pappageorge.

Pinos’ 16-year-old son, Justin, wore Pappageorge’s FDNY shirt today. Pappageorge was not his biological father but had treated him like a son. The mom and son were one of the hundreds of families at ground zero to celebrate the nearly 3000 people lost on Sept. 11, 2001. They came with posters full of photographs of their loved ones and signs that simply read, “I Heart Daddy” and “Never Forget.” They wore t-shirts emblazoned with their images and sniffled as names were read.

Pinos can still remember the last time she talked to her 29-year-old fiancé. “We left each other in the morning. … I took the train in [to work] from Yonkers. … I saw TVs showcasing the towers getting hit,” she said. Pappageorge was six weeks into his career as a firefighter. Worried, Pinos reached him by the pay phone at his firehouse as he and the rest of Engine 23 were being called to duty.

He told her, “I love you, I got to go, bye.” Pinos never got to tell him goodbye or her biggest secret of all: She was pregnant. She’d taken a pregnancy test the night before and had planned to surprise him with the news. “I never got to tell him,” Pinos said. “I lost him and the baby because it was too much.” The two had planned to marry Sept. 11, 2002. Today, Pinos brought pictures of her love to leave at the place on the memorial where his name has been carved.

In memory of Jimmy Pappageorge. Gone but never forgotten.

Men On Call

Shortly after recording this interview, Mike sent us photos to share. Heather followed up with Mike about the men in this photo and this was the note he sent.

Mike Cortes tells his story as a first responder during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Brave Files.

In honor of two guys in this photo who never returned home on 9-11-01; Bobby Evans, with his hand in my shoulder, and Michael Boyle (two over from Bobby). I'm honored they mentored me and were absolutely fantastic guys who loved what they did and would lay down their own life for you in a heartbeat. They led by example. Today my family enjoyed the chicken pasta dish they taught me how to make while in the firehouse. They, along with so many others including James Papageorge who took my shift that day, are never forgotten.

More about Mike

Eventually, Mike took a leave of absence from the fire department. Unsurprisingly, the trauma and aftermath of 9/11 impacted his life forever. In the end, he decided to make a change. He started over by moving Florida where he now works as a real estate agent focused on creating a purpose-driven business. Most importantly, he’s a husband, a father of four, and he aims to inspire others to live with purpose and intention.

Mike Cortes tells his story as a first responder during the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Brave Files.

Mike is now a proud husband and father who hopes to leave his children with a legacy of kindness, intentional living and purpose.

If you would like to connect with Mike please reach out to us, here at The Brave Files, and we will put you in touch with him. He has also invited you to find him on Facebook.


A Call To Action

It’s true; we're all united. We get to decide if we’re going to welcome one another – – The choice is ours. With this in mind, Mike encourages us all to honor the fallen through kindness. Celebrate goodness by noticing the simple things, and supporting those around you. Equally as important, it’s our responsibility to rebuild community after tragedy.

Please Join Us

We're called to honor the lives of those lost and forever changed on 9/11 by focusing on acts of kindness.

Pay it forward 9/11 is an organization dedicated to kindness, remembrance, and community.

Their website states:

After the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in America, the world was united, saying “Never Forget.” Kindness to strangers and community service were heightened across the world. 

In 2019, the world is polarized, in need of compassionate action. Join us by encouraging your workplace, school, house of worship, and family to participate in the 18th annual Pay it Forward 9/11. Wednesday, September 11, 2019, is a national day of service and remembrance in both the US and Canada.

To help create a ripple effect, you can inspire others to participate. Post your related plans and actions on our social media channels, using #PayitForward911.

The Pay It Forward movement encourages you to do at least 3 acts of kindness for random strangers.

Some suggestions include:

  • Buying someone a cup of coffee
  • Volunteer to help someone
  • Check-in on your neighbors
  • Pass out cookies with a note asking others to spread kindness

As you move through your day, sharing kindness, be sure to and explain that you’re carrying on the legacy of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice on 9/11. Build community with intention, one act of kindness at a time.

Let us know how it goes.

Give us a call at (312) 646-0205 and tell us about your Pay it Forward acts of kindness. We’d love to hear your stories.

Resources Mentioned in Mike’s Interview:

World Trade Center Health Program

Brene Brown’s Books

The story of Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11

Giving is Good

Mike proudly supports the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation. This important organization supports the families of military personnel and first responders who are lost in the line of duty. Founded in honor of a firefighter lost during the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center, Tunnel to Towers provides various support programs to meet the needs of those lost or seriously injured. Programs include: Smart Home Program, Fallen First Responder Home Program, and Gold Star Family Home Program. In addition, the foundation provides a variety of other community support programs.

"We're all going to have different views, but we can love each other. We can be American together. We can find common ground."

- Mike Cortes

Meet your Host, <em style="color:teal">Heather Vickery<em>

Meet your Host, Heather Vickery

Heather Vickery is an award-winning business owner and global leader with over 20 years as an entrepreneur. She leverages her entrepreneurial skills and expertise to coach individuals towards greater personal and professional fulfillment by helping them leverage their fear into intentional bravery. Heather says “When we choose bravely, on purpose, we choose bigger, have bigger successes and it’s contagious” A celebrated public speaker, Heather inspires audiences and empowers attendees with the tools they need to live bold and successful lives through creating balance, time management, mindfulness, as well as countless systems, strategies, and boundaries. She’s the author of Gratitude Journal: Shift Your Focus and Grow Grateful: A Gratitude Journal for Kids and Families. Heather is also the host and executive producer of The Brave Files Podcast.

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