MADISON, Wis. -

In the 12 years since the 9/11 attacks, life has changed for most Americans, including one Madison firefighter.

Two days after the planes hit the towers, Rob Verhelst left Madison to help with the search and recovery efforts. He's using what he saw to inspire others.

"Yes, the planes hit the towers, but there's many stories of people who saved lives that day, people who helped rebuild our country,” said Verhelst.

While most of us watched the images of 9/11, Verhelst was moved to action

"I can't dwell on why it happened. I have to look at it like this happened because of this, but I'm here now because of that,” said Verhelst.

Working those eight days near Ground Zero inspired him to use his ability as an endurance athlete to raise money for charity. Known around the country as Fireman Rob, he's participated in Ironman triathlons for the last two years wearing his fireman's uniform, which is more than 50 pounds of gear, as a tribute to the firefighters, police and first responders who lost their lives in 2001.

"I did it in fire gear and thought nothing of it, but it's grown to be something bigger than me and continues to grow,” said Verhelst.

The anniversary of the attacks is an emotional day for Verhelst, but remembering how people came together to help strangers inspires him to encourage others to create beauty from the ashes.

"What we gained from that day. We gained resilience. We gained that if we all come together there's great things that can happen,” said Verhelst.

He still works as a firefighter but now he's also a motivational speaker who talks with people about igniting their passion and the importance of helping others.

Remembrance Ceremonies

There was a ceremony at the State Veteran’s Museum marking the moments of the 9/11 attack Wednesday.

The Madison Fire Department Honor Guard rang a bell for the Wisconsinites who lost their lives in the attacks.

Veterans Affairs Secretary John Scocos and Department of Administration Secretary Mike Huebsch spoke about the attacks and the national impact.

“It has been said no foreign nation, no external force will destroy our nation, and I believe that but it’s not simply because of the strength of our Army or the might of our Navy. It is because we come together on days like this to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. Our nation, the greatest in the history of the world, will survive,” said Huebsch.

Huebsch said the violence galvanized a generation but did not hurt our nation’s resolve.

In Milwaukee, hundreds came together at the War Memorial for a tribute that included laying wreaths, a gun salute and a rendition of Taps.

Those who went received a flag from the Wisconsin-based Eder Flag Company. The Oak Creek operation makes about five million flags every year and even made the one in the iconic photo from Ground Zero.

Iraq War veteran Gwen Shepard said to her, the flag is an important American symbol of what our nation stands for.

Students placed thousands of flags on the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus early Wednesday morning honoring those who lost their lives.

They placed flags on the law outside Dempsey Hall as part of the school’s Never Forget Project. One flag was placed for each of the victims of the terror attacks.