Former Flight Attendant to Honor Late 9/11 Colleagues by Pushing Beverage Cart from Boston to NYC

"They are heroes and should be recognized for what they did. They were the first, first responders of 9/11," Paulie Veneto says of his late coworkers

A former flight attendant is planning to push a beverage cart from Boston to New York City, all to honor his colleagues who tragically died on Sept. 11, 2001.

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, Paul "Paulie" Veneto will be walking from Boston Logan Airport, where two of the hijacked planes departed, to Ground Zero.

Veneto — who worked on the same United Airlines route from Boston to Los Angeles but was off on the day that Flight 175 hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center — tells PEOPLE he's doing it for those who are no longer here, and for their loved ones.

"I want those crew members' families to sleep at night and know that their family member wasn't just murdered on an aircraft," says Veneto, 62. "They stood up against terrorism that morning."

"They are heroes and should be recognized for what they did," he adds. "They were the first, first responders of 9/11."

Paulie's Push
Paul "Paulie" Veneto. Ian Stoker-Long/Courtesy COMPEL

Just one day before the attacks unfolded, Veneto says he was finishing up his shift on a United flight, where he closely worked alongside some of the victims.

Because he had less seniority than the other flight attendants, Veneto was scheduled to work the weekend shift instead of the weekday one — a fateful turn of events that ultimately saved his life.

"I ended up flying out on Saturday [Sept. 8] and I came back Monday night [Sept. 10] at 8 p.m.," explains Veneto. "And they went out Tuesday morning."

While working on a friend's house early that day, Veneto says he learned of the first plane hitting the North Tower. Less than 20 minutes later, he saw the second plane crash into the South Tower.

"From that point on, my life was changed forever," he recalls. "It was just mayhem... I never felt the feelings I was feeling. I just knew I was on a different path."

Paulie's Push
Paul "Paulie" Veneto working as a flight attendant. Courtesy Paul Veneto

That path ultimately led him to suffer from a nearly 15-year battle with opioid addiction.

"For years, every time I got on a plane, I was waiting for it to happen, so I was suffering every day," he explains. "A lot of people didn't come back to work and I didn't blame them, but I wasn't giving in. I said, 'I'm not letting them take my career.' And so that's where the opioid addiction came in for me."

"I was numbed out. I wasn't feeling the true effects of what was going on," he goes on. "I didn't know it then, but every year the anniversary would come up, it would just fuel the addiction."

It wasn't until six years ago that Veneto decided to get sober — and he's been clean ever since. The Braintree, Massachusetts resident now wears a "miracle" shirt to symbolize all he's overcome.

"Once the obsession was lifted for me, it was like I was alive again. It was a miracle," he says. "Fifteen years is a long time... I didn't think I'd survive what I went through to be able to do this today, and that's why I'm so grateful."

Paulie's Push
Paul "Paulie" Veneto. Ian Stoker-Long/Courtesy COMPEL

Around the time he got sober, Veneto says he came up with the idea to push the beverage cart for his late colleagues, but decided to wait until the 20th anniversary.

"It just seemed logical. A lot of people run across the country or walk but I've pushed beverage carts all over the world. Everybody that's been on planes knows flight attendants push beverage carts," he explains. "And I can do it now. I'm not handcuffed in that addiction no more."

Now dubbed Paulie's Push, Veneto's 220-mile journey will be documented on social media, as he walks and raises money to support the 9/11 crew members' families and their registered not-for-profit organizations, as well as the nonprofit Power Forward, which supports those dealing with addiction.

Paulie's Push
Paul "Paulie" Veneto at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Courtesy Paul Veneto

He is scheduled to begin his trip on Aug. 21, and two of his high school friends will be following closely behind in an RV.

Along the way, he hopes to get support on the road from some of his fellow flight attendant coworkers, the victims' families and even strangers, before making it to Ground Zero on Sept. 11 — which also marks the six-year anniversary of his sobriety.

"I know that's going to be something," he says. "I can't even imagine [how it will feel]. It's hard to even go there. I never in a million years thought I'd be doing this... I've just got to stay focused."

"But this whole thing is not about me. It never was and it won't be," he adds. "My story is part of it, but it's not why I'm doing it. I'm doing it because these people deserve this recognition."

Paulie's Push
Paul "Paulie" Veneto. Ian Stoker-Long/Courtesy COMPEL

As he prepares for the emotional undertaking, Veneto hopes others can learn an important lesson from his story.

"No matter what's going on in anybody's life, there's always a possibility, there's always hope," he says. "And because I'm doing this, I'm helping somebody, somewhere. That's a good feeling because for years I couldn't help anybody, and I didn't like that. To me, the joy of living is helping. There's no better feeling than to help somebody."

Paulie's Push
Paul "Paulie" Veneto. Ian Stoker-Long/Courtesy COMPEL

As for what his late colleagues would think of his beverage cart journey?

"I look at them every day I push that cart. I have their pictures on top of the cart [and] I swear to God, their smiles on them seem bigger, like they're smiling even more," he says. "I know they'd do the same thing for me."

"I know they're looking down and saying, 'Thank you,'" he adds. "And I'm just so grateful that I can do this."

Those interested in supporting Veneto's journey or learning more about his route can do so here.

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