When Nelson Ortiz signed on to become a train operator, the Staten Island resident never fathomed he'd be part of the World Trade Center bucket brigade on Sept. 11, 2001, or walk along the Rockaway's washed-out subway tracks after superstorm Sandy shut down the system.
"It changes your whole perspective on life," said Ortiz, 49, of the natural and man-made disasters.
The experiences of transit workers such as Ortiz during the storm and on Sept. 11, 2001, are part of "Bringing Back the City: Mass Transit Responses to Crisis," at the New York Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn.
Ortiz is one of dozens of voices heard in the exhibit giving first-person accounts of how transit workers responded to those calamities as well as the Northeast Blackout of 2003, the blizzard that hit the city in 2010 and Hurricane Irene in 2011.
As Sandy forecasters predicted hurricane conditions before the late-October 2012 storm, Ortiz and thousands of other transit workers across the city and Long Island were "shoring up" the system with sandbags and plywood sea walls to protect the train tracks and infrastructure.
Ortiz and his supervisor found themselves walking along the tracks near Kennedy Airport just before the storm made landfall.
"There were no planes -- just a black eerie silence over our heads."
The silence soon broke with a noise that sounded like "a river flow rushing out," he said in an interview, adding that water soon engulfed the tracks.
"It was like a canal," Ortiz said. "The water flowed all around us. The rocks and dirt along the tracks washed away. It was pitch black."
When the waters receded, he said, he and his supervisor saw a "skeleton" track that dropped 200 feet.
"Only the railroad ties were holding it together," he said.
On 9/11, Ortiz went to the World Trade Center pile to deliver gloves, dusk masks and garbage bags. He and other transit workers stayed for several days to look for survivors.
After 9/11 the transit system organized an emergency response team that has grown and become an integral part of the transit system, according to testimonials from officials who are part of the exhibit.
During the 2003 blackout, Glen Ramussen, 45, of Hicksville, a Manhattan bus operator, was one of dozens of drivers who picked up stranded Long Island commuters.
"There were literally thousands of people at Penn Station and on the streets looking to get back home. There were no lights, no signals," Ramussen said.
Every intersection was a four-way stop, he said, and exhausted commuters who had been traveling six to eight hours packed onto Ramussen's accordion-size bus.
"They just wanted to get home," Ramussen said.
He dropped off passengers in Queens before taking customers along the Long Island Rail Road Huntington line stops. Ramussen said he worked 18 hours "solid."
"It was a rewarding experience to know that you can handle the job and go above and beyond. Everybody was working together to bring back the city to normal," he said. "It proved once again that New Yorkers are tough as nails."
The two-year exhibit, which opened last month, costs $7 for adults and $5 for children and seniors.