Like the majority of Americans, Dave Burkart remembers where he was on Sept. 11, 2001.


"I was actually getting ready to go to work," he said. "I got a call from my sister-in-law that I needed to turn on the TV because a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center."


While Burkart's story is familiar, up to this point, his experience of watching the plane strike the second tower and the rescue efforts that followed was colored by the fact that the job he had been going to that morning was as a firefighter for the former Hesperia Fire Department.


"You look around at our desert and we have a few tall buildings, but nothing on the scale of Manhattan," Burkart, now a captain with the San Bernardino County Fire Department, said in his office at Station 305. "I found myself wondering, 'Could I do that?' I'd like to think that I could, but until you're tested, you really don't know."


In 2001, Burkart was part of the HFD's newly created chaplain program, although firefighters whom he described as a traditional bunch sometimes slow to embrace change had not yet called on his services.


But his church, Calvary Chapel of the High Desert, wanted to help out with the recovery from the 9/11 attacks any way they could, and asked Burkart and two other firefighters in the congregation to spend part of December and January in New York, ministering to the crews searching for bodies in the rubble of the Twin Towers.


Burkart and his fellow firefighters worked out of St. Joseph's Chapel, a Catholic chapel that had been converted to a rest center for workers.


"The workers got tired of being asked by people, 'Hey, what was it like?' They needed a place they could go," he said. "We didn't speak to the workers unless we were spoken to."


But they did provide a proactive service for the firefighters looking for the remains of their fallen comrades and attack victims: Every hour, the three Californians would go into the pit that had once been the World Trade Center, bringing coffee and hot chocolate to help ward off the bitter New York winter.


"They began to call us the Hot Chocolate Gang."


It was a welcome bit of cheer since, by that point, it had been weeks since any bodies had been recovered and the New York City firefighters were beginning to question what they were doing.


"How do you find hope in just pulling a body out? But they kept digging."


While Burkart and company were in New York, though, the firefighters suddenly discovered a series of bodies.


"When they were removing one of their brothers, they would call one of their FDNY ambulances and one of their chaplains," he said. "One of the guys said, 'Hey, you guys belong here, too.'"


He paused, choking up.


"Wow, all these years later."


After weeks without finding a body, the firefighters recovered more than a dozen in a matter of hours.


"They may not personally know the brother they're pulling out of there but I guarantee, they knew someone who does."


While the pain and the tragedy were awful, Burkart also saw the best of humanity in those weeks, he said.


"For a younger, inexperienced chaplain, it was beyond a scale that I could have imagined," he said. "This (was) a personal tragedy on a national scale. ... We saw the worst and the best of what people had to offer."


Ten years later, the example of what his fellow firefighters did on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the weeks and months after, stays with him still.


"There's probably not a day that goes by that I don't think about those firefighters choosing to go into those buildings," he said. "What they did there helps me moving in the right direction where I need to go."


Beau Yarbrough may be reached at (760) 956-7108 or at beau@HesperiaStar.com. Follow us on Facebook at Facebook.com/Hesperia.Star.