Fifteen years after Valparaiso chiropractor John Kostidis rushed in to help at ground zero, talking about his time there remains difficult.

"People died there. You saw the devastation," he said. 

He'll always be humbled by the experiences he had helping people who did so much for their country, he said.

Kostidis first traveled to New York about 10 days after Sept. 11, 2001, after watching the attacks and their aftermath unfold on television. He returned to help two additional times.

"You still always have the thoughts," he said. "You think of what you were doing, what you saw."

But, as with anything in life, some of the memories have faded, he said. 

As Kostidis, 62, flipped through a book of photographs Wednesday at his home in Liberty Township, he paused at several pictures of his cellphone showing calls he received from the American Red Cross and New York State Chiropractic Association. The organizations were asking him to return for his second visit.

A letter from a colleague in New York said Kostidis didn't think twice when he answered those calls, which came after first responders began asking for "Dr. John from Indiana."

"I was just helping," he said, his voice shaking. "I didn't think they were going to call back, and the police and firemen were going to ask for me."

Kostidis said he first slept in a cleared-out area at ground zero and then on a ship near ground zero during his first trip to New York. He provided chiropractic services to police officers, firefighters, rescue workers and others.

He flew back to New York on Halloween for the second trip, and slept in what appeared to be a banquet room at a damaged hotel, he said.

He made many friends there, some of whom he's kept in touch with over the years. They don't often talk about what they saw together, but they touch base more frequently this time of year, he said.

One of the photographs Kostidis looked at Wednesday showed the face of a fire marshal who had worked to identify bodies.

"His back was always strained," the chiropractor said.

The two kept in contact over the years, and the fire marshal invited the Kostidises to christenings for all three of his children. The invitations were not expected and touching, he said.

Another photograph showed three firefighters among debris from a building. Kostidis pointed to the firefighter in the middle, who was alone and crying when Kostidis initially approached. Kostidis recalled putting a hand on the firefighter's shoulder.

"He kept saying, 'You don't understand,'" Kostidis said.

The firefighter eventually explained he was supposed to be at work Sept. 11, and his co-workers had been buried under the debris.

Many of Kostidis' photographs showed the extent of destruction throughout the city.

Kostidis said he worked nonstop providing chiropractic care, sometimes working for 48 hours at a time. The stream of people who needed help was endless, he said. He recalled a time when he and another chiropractor looked up and saw a waist-high stack of bullet-proof vests, gun belts, helmets and other gear shed by a long line of first responders in preparation for their treatments.

Sometimes, Kostidis had to take breaks. It was then that he walked, lending a hand to anyone else who needed help.

"The odor was like nothing you could think of," he said. "It smelled like death. Maybe it was just because other people were saying that, too, because you knew what was under the rubble."

He took many of the photos with disposable 35 mm cameras as he walked during those breaks, he said.

"I took one photo, and then before you know it, there's so much to see," he said. "Not that anyone really wanted to, but it was something."

Police officers and firefighters took photos, too, as if everyone at ground zero felt compelled to somehow capture that time.

"We all felt the same," he said. "You hated to be there, but you couldn't wait to get back and help after you'd had a break."

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Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.