On Sept. 11, 2001, I was a third-year medical student working at Brooklyn Hospital, only a block from the corner of Flatbush and DeKalb avenues. I had just started my six-week pediatric rotation the day before.
Our morning started around 9 with the pediatric meeting and case presentation. Right before the meeting started, I remember someone briefly mentioned, “Hey, did you hear there was an explosion at the World Trade Center?” Having been in New York for the 1993 bombing, I realized the potential for a disastrous terrorist attack, but the more likely explanation was that an air conditioner exploded or something similarly small. Perhaps a small plane flew into the WTC. But it barely seemed worthy of attention, and we all returned to our meeting’s agenda.
When the meeting finished at about 9:45, I started to walk out of the conference room when one of my classmates ran through the hall saying, “Oh my God, did you hear? One of the Twin Towers fell!”
I could hardly believe it — it seemed so impossible. Fell? You’ve got to be kidding me. This isn’t some movie.
However, I had a very close friend, Dave, who worked in the WTC. (He started working on the 56th floor of Tower 1 about three weeks before.) Starting to believe one of the towers might have actually fallen, I suddenly started to worry. I could feel my heart racing.
I ran upstairs to the nursery to check the TV and find out what was going on. The TV was on and all the nurses were standing around it, looking on in disbelief. A PA student I was rotating with, Scott Fleck, followed me as I ran into the room.
The TV showed one tower still standing, burning, and the other collapsed. Suddenly, all I could think about was my best friend Dave. Which tower was he in, again? Which floor? I started to panic, kind of a cross between crying and hyperventilating. I picked up the phone and called his apartment — nobody was there. I called his dad. I left him a message, asking him to call my cellphone if he knew Dave was OK. I called my parents, asking them to find out if Dave was OK, and to call me as soon as they heard anything. Nobody was home.
I must have looked awful at that point, because Scott the PA and the nurses in the unit started to try to calm me down. They were saying things like, “Calm down,” “Which building was he in?” “Maybe he was in the other building.” I didn’t know.
I started to think, “Yeah, maybe he is still in the standing building,” when suddenly, I watched on TV as the second tower went down, the newscaster screaming, “Oh my God, the second tower is falling!”
At that point, I lost all composure. It sank in that the WTC had actually fallen. It wasn’t in the skyline anymore. The magnitude of such an event was enormous, and I realized the nursery was the last place I wanted to be. Having five years of experience doing emergency medical services in Westchester, I guess it came naturally to me to tell the nurses, “I think they might need us downstairs,” and I left (with Scott in tow) to go down to the ER.
Scott and I rode the elevator to the basement, where the Brooklyn Hospital ER is located. I walked through the ER once. All I saw was chaos. Attendings were ripping up big pieces of cardboard to be used as signs to organize the patient flow. Nurses were rolling stretchers down the hall. There were a few patients covered with dust from head to toe, with non-rebreathing masks on, sitting on stretchers. I stopped for a moment, and talked to one of the ER residents. She gave me a quick rundown of what she had seen on the news at that point. Loosely, it went something like this: “They hijacked several jets, they also hit the Pentagon. The news was showing footage of people jumping from the buildings, but now they’re not showing it anymore; I guess it’s too distasteful. And I heard that Bush shot down a jet in Pennsylvania.”
We walked out to the ambulance staging area and saw thousands of people walking up Flatbush Avenue. Some were completely covered in dust. Many were crying. I realized this was not a joke, this was not a test — this was really happening. And again, all I could think about was Dave. Not being able to imagine anyone surviving that, and knowing that he’s usually early for work, I was certain he was dead.
The best way to describe my emotions at that point was a mix of helplessness, anger and sadness. I was crying uncontrollably. One of the residents came up to me and suggested I sit down and relax. I didn’t feel comfortable with that idea. One of my classmates, Nazli, came up to me and let me cry on her shoulder for a moment.
Between my sobs I tried to explain why I was freaking out. “My best friend works in the Trade Center!” Somehow it seemed silly that I should be freaking out that much about a “best friend,” but since I have so little family in America, my best friend is my family. Dave is like an adopted brother to me. So when the security guard came up to me and tried to get me to calm down, I told him, “My brother works in the World Trade Center!” He seemed to understand my anguish better.
Standing in the small ambulance staging area at Brooklyn Hospital, completely surrounded by chaos and people crying and sirens and horns honking and cars unable to move, I decided to take control of my situation. I remember thinking to myself, “If something happened to Dave, I’m at least going to fight whatever it was that did all this.”
With that, I started to walk in the opposite direction of the mass of people. Scott the PA asked me where I was going. I told him, “I’m going down there; they’re going to need help.” Scott looked like he wanted to follow me, but appeared nervous. “Scott, seriously, stay here,” I told him, but he cautiously followed me instead.
We started to walk down Flatbush Avenue, toward Junior’s Restaurant, when we ran into another man walking in our direction (opposite the crowd). He introduced himself as Robert Cartwright, a PA who works at Brooklyn Hospital in the ENT department. Robert seemed to be answering the same call we were. His attitude was much more in line with my thinking at that point, saying stuff like, “I don’t know, but I’m going down there to help.” We decided to join him and walked down to Junior’s, then turned right toward the Manhattan Bridge.
With police holding all non-emergency vehicles at a standstill, Flatbush Avenue was in complete gridlock. The road going over the bridge was essentially empty of vehicles, but was moderately congested with people running away from Manhattan. I remember seeing a few odd things — a man dragging his suitcase, another man rolling some kind of a clothes rack.
The three of us walked up to the foot of the bridge, where police cars blocked the roadway so that only emergency vehicles and personnel could get through.
We waited there for a bit, looking at the large plume of smoke coming from the southern tip of Manhattan, and all took a moment to think twice before crossing the bridge. While we waited, we were joined by another doctor who identified himself as a radiologist. I think he said he worked at Mount Sinai or somewhere. He joined us as we stood there, listening to the sirens, and watching the occasional emergency vehicle race over the bridge at breakneck speeds.
We identified ourselves to the police standing at the entrance to the bridge, when they told us, “You guys are doctors? We have a pregnant lady in the building over here!”
In retrospect, I’m not sure what the building was. It looked like some kind of a concrete-and-marble, federal/school-type building, just a few feet south of the Manhattan Bridge. The woman was on the second floor, and the building had a type of infirmary from which we got some makeshift supplies. When we reached the pregnant mother, we first evaluated her. The radiologist put on gloves and reassured the mother that she was going to be OK. He then quickly examined her, while the rest of us prepared for an impending delivery by opening up boxes of sanitary pads and paper towels.
Fortunately, after inspecting the patient, the radiologist reported that she still had time before she was going to deliver. Sensing a need for supplies — all I had was my stethoscope — we packed a plastic bag full of pads, tape and as many gloves as we could fit.
We carried the mother down to the front of the building, reassuring her. Someone with an SUV or van drove up and volunteered to take her. We put her in the vehicle with the nurse from the building and directed them to take her to Brooklyn Hospital as soon as possible. I remember a moment when I worried if she would get there in time, but then I looked to my left and saw the enormous plume of smoke on the other side of the East River, and thought, “She’s only a few blocks away, has a police escort, and this is not a normal situation — I think we might be needed down there.” (I was never able to figure out who the mother was. I didn’t remember her name, and when I did my rotation in OB/GYN a month or so later, none of the residents were sure who she was.)
The four of us walked up to the foot of the bridge again. We waited there with the officers standing guard, and asked if any vehicles were crossing over. “Well, yeah, they’re going over, but I don’t know when the next one is coming.” We waited there, watching the flow of people over the bridge ebb, and when no vehicles came for four or five minutes, we figured we would hoof it. With the police officer’s permission, we started walking over the Manhattan Bridge toward Canal Street in Manhattan.
As we walked over the bridge, I was in full EMS mode. Ray Thompson, my EMT instructor from way back when, always talked about the need to be resourceful when times are tough. The example Ray always talked about was using a car visor as a splint, in a pinch. So as we walked over the bridge, I found some long steel bolts, about 18 inches long, that were lying on the side of the roadway, apparently left there by workers who were repairing the bridge. I thought to myself, “What great splints these could make!” as I grabbed two of them and kept walking.
The mood was a little strange. There was the “Do you have a wife and kids?” talk among us, since now the picture was emerging more vividly than ever. But we kept walking.
About halfway over the bridge, an emergency vehicle pulled over, a red Buick Regal-type car with an emergency flasher on the dashboard. The woman inside picked us up. I don’t remember what she said her role was, but I remember it being sort of peripheral, like “police safety officer” or something. Yet she was in as much of a rush as us, and we were plenty happy to get the ride over the second half of the bridge.
The radiologist at this point told us, “Listen, I’m not sure what use I’m going to be to you guys. I think I would be of better use up at Mount Sinai.”
When we hit the gridlock awaiting us at the other end of the bridge — Canal Street was being closed and was full of emergency vehicles and other cars stuck in the confusion — we exited the car. The radiologist headed north to his hospital, and Scott, Robert and I walked south on Church Street.
As we walked, we still fought against a big crowd of people running north. At this point, not too many were completely covered with dust, as we saw in the earlier crowd. They were still crying and anxious, but there didn’t seem to be anybody to treat.
We walked about three blocks south, and stopped at a Korean grocery. The sun was bright and it was already a hot day. I think Robert also suggested that we get some water, not only for us, but for emergency purposes. We walked into the grocery store and asked for water. I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to pay for it, and none of us had much money. Robert came up with some cash, which we offered, but the grocer seemed to understand this was not a normal circumstance. Thankfully, when they saw us in our scrubs, and Robert in his white coat, they gave us several bottles of Evian for free. We took a few sips and packed the rest into our plastic bag-makeshift first-aid kit, and headed farther south.
As we walked another three or four blocks south, the police had set up barricades, preventing people from trying to walk south. They let us through without question, I guess because they figured we were medical people going down to help.
At one point, the sky started to get darker and a fine ash/dust fell everywhere. We stopped three women who were walking out of the mess, and asked them for their masks, since we were walking in. They happily gave us their masks and headed north while we continued south.
A few blocks farther south, the sky was getting darker, the dust getting so bad that I had to squint to keep it out of my eyes. The space between my mask and face became very apparent, since I suddenly tasted the dust. It felt and tasted like a cold, gritty material. I figured it was a mixture of concrete and maybe very finely ground glass and asbestos.
When we hit Fulton Street, Robert seemed excited. He told us he had worked in the neighborhood and knew the area. I remember Fulton was near the WTC, but having never worked in downtown Manhattan, I didn’t realize it was actually the street that crossed over the north part of the WTC complex. For some reason, I kept thinking of the Fulton Fish Market, which my high school class visited in 1988.
As we turned onto Fulton, the scene changed dramatically. The dust was very bad. Breathing became very difficult, even with a mask. It no longer seemed like daytime — when I play this part back in my mind, it seems like it was midnight. Only later when I stopped to think about it did I realize it was daytime.
To give you an idea of the mood at this point, I can only describe it as being similar to the latter scenes in the movie Titanic, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are below deck as the ship is sinking, and they see the random person running off with their suitcase, and another person running with their child and a bag of clothes. This was very similar to what we saw. I remember seeing a random businessman trying to make his way home, and a person carrying a plastic bag as they walked north. There was also the strange feeling that something worse could still happen. I didn’t know if we should be expecting more, like an atomic blast, but again I figured it was probably over, and if not, this is how I wanted to spend my last moments — trying to help someone.
The roads were strangely quiet; not a single sound. Stores were all closed. Those that had metal grating in front had closed them in a hurry. Some stores had messy makeshift signs saying “CLOSED TODAY.” There was a small group of teenagers looking nervous as they stood in front of a broken storefront, looking inside. I thought they might be looting, which angered me. I walked up to them to see what they were trying to steal, since the store looked like some kind of jewelry store, and said, “You guys aren’t seriously looting, are you?” They looked back at me, and I realized that if an altercation were to happen, the police wouldn’t be there. So I left them alone, and the three of us continued walking up Fulton.
Amid all the doom and despair was suddenly a young woman, probably in her 20s, standing alone on a street corner. She had a shopping cart full of bottled water and paper cups. She was offering it to anyone who walked by, to help wash out their eyes. I thought it was peculiar that she had paper cups — it seemed like such a nicety in the middle of all of this, an unexpected sign of civilization amid the chaos, kind of like making sure your suit is pressed before you’re going down in the Titanic. But she stood there, offering it to the few people who were still around.
We explained that we were going down to the site to look for people, and she immediately gave us a gallon of water to carry along. After exchanging brief words, we continued on. I still feel bad that we left her there. I’m not sure what she had seen an hour or two earlier, but clearly she was as determined as we were to try to have some control over this chaos. (To this day, I have no idea who that woman was, but I would like to thank her. If anyone knows who she is, please contact me. I think about her a lot.)
The dust was pretty thick at this point. I remember looking down and noticing it was up to my ankles. Suddenly, there were women’s shoes all over the street. I was trying to figure out where they came from. Morbidly, I thought they might have been from the passengers in one of the jets, but more likely they were women’s shoes that were quickly discarded as people fled the scene quickly.
I also remember tripping over various things several times. Metal beams lying in the street. Papers from people’s desks were blowing all over. I picked up one — I don’t remember the details, but I recall it was a double-spaced legal document describing part of some lawsuit. I thought for a moment and wondered if the lawsuit was still going to happen after this.
Once, while tripping over debris, I dropped my glasses in the dust. They completely disappeared in the 4 or 5 inches of dust that blanketed the street like snow. I frantically tried to blow the dust away, only to get a mouthful of the stuff back in my face, but fortunately I was able to feel for them and find them.
We walked on, looking for anyone, any cries for help, when suddenly we came upon what I call “The Stump.”It was the remaining pile of burning debris at the site of the former Twin Towers. It burned intensely. Not just a crackling-type fire, but a real blow-furnace fire, like when a glass blower puts it into that inferno to melt it. The WTC was right in front of us, the pile several stories high, burning. Despite the bright, shooting flames, it still felt like nighttime. The dust was so thick that the light from the flames barely reached us.
At that point, we realized we couldn’t go straight, so we walked right past WTC Building 7 and turned right to head north. The air seemed to get a little lighter, and firefighters rushed down to the rubble, carrying hoses.
We walked farther north, asking the firefighters and police repeatedly if a triage station was set up. Nobody seemed to know. We trudged on, covered in dust and still tasting concrete, and kept asking if anyone knew of a triage center. None of the police or firefighters had a clue. My guess is their radios were jammed with transmissions from other officers trying to coordinate bigger things.
So we kept walking around. At one point we were picked up by a Hatzolah Ambulance that was partly crushed, its front windshield cracked. We jumped in and joined several orthodox EMTs who were also looking for where to go. They were a very nice bunch. Apparently, they had been right under the overpass that led to the WTC when it collapsed around them, and their ambulance got stuck. They managed to wedge it out from the overpass, and kept driving around, searching for a way to help.
The ambulance got stuck behind a bunch of other emergency vehicles, so we stepped out (leaving our steel-rod splints in their ambulance), and walked around again. Still, we kept asking the firefighters and police officers if anything had been organized. Nobody knew. Finally, one firefighter said, “Well, they’re supposed to set something up over on Greenwich and North Moore, but nobody is here yet.”
The corner of Greenwich and North Moore, 388 Greenwich St., is the site of the Citigroup building (more recently the Travelers Building). It was an ideal place for a triage unit. It has a decent-size courtyard, perfect for setting up the triage area. It also has a good stretch of street in front of it, perfect for setting up an ambulance staging area. And it had a big red metal umbrella — a piece of modern art. The umbrella made it feel safe, and was a good place to tell people to meet when nobody knew the area.
The only problem was that a bunch of EMS workers, paramedics, doctors and other volunteers were standing around, but still nobody to organize efforts.
We all stood there for about a minute, waiting for updates of what we should do. At some point someone asked if we were supposed to be setting up a triage site here, and someone else yelled out, “Yeah, but FDNY isn’t here yet.”
Suddenly I felt the need to assume some responsibility. It seemed ridiculous to wait; we should start acting now. We didn’t know who our patients would be, or how many we would have, but the World Trade Center has just fallen, and we can’t just stand around and wait.
The leader inside me came out, and I started barking out orders and assuming control. I don’t like to toot my own horn, so let me just say it was very Forrest Gump-ish. I was just the right person with the right training in the right place at the right time. I don’t think there was anything to it, really, it just needed to be done. So I started barking out orders and began to organize the triage effort there on the corners of Greenwich and North Moore.
I can’t remember exactly how I responded to the guy saying that we should wait for FDNY to show up, but these are a few of the phrases I recall shouting: “No way, hold on, we’re not going to wait. OK, everyone, LISTEN UP! We’re here at a time of a national disaster, our World Trade Center has just fallen. We don’t have much information right now about who or how many need to be treated, but we can’t just stand around. We need to set this up and I need your cooperation! I want all EMTs and paramedics to gather over here. Doctors and nurses gather under the umbrella. I want all ambulance drivers over here,” pointing to the street corner for ambulances to park.
To the ambulance drivers: “I want all of the ambulances lined up over here, leave your keys IN THE AMBULANCE, and make sure they’re off. I don’t want any ambulances with dead batteries. And PLEASE STAY NEAR YOUR AMBULANCE; we need you to be available immediately.”
To the doctors and nurses: “I need people to gather by whatever your specialty is — if you’re a surgeon, stick with the other surgeons, if you’re a pediatrician, stick with other pediatricians. Please identify yourselves by your specialties. I also need someone to be responsible for organizing the doctors.”
To the paramedics and EMTs: “I need you guys to be our front line of defense; when patients show up here, you have to be the first to look at them and decide what to do with them. If there is something bleeding, put a gloved finger on it. Do whatever your skills are, but you’re going to be our front line.”
To the volunteers: “I need two people to be in charge of organizing the supplies that are coming in. Your job is going to be to organize it and keep it safe. I’ll show you what some of the basic tools are, but you have to provide them to any worker who asks for them. I also need one of you to be in charge of organizing volunteers across the street. Take all of these people, organize them across the street, and try to keep track of who can do what. If there are any CPR-trained people, keep them in a special area.”
To the police: “Can we get the crowd back here? We’re going to set up a triage site here. Do you have any yellow tape?”
To the doctors who identified themselves as emergency physicians: “We need to set up the triage areas. I need one person to be responsible for each area, and one person responsible for directing patients to the areas.”
Basically, I started to delegate. And people listened to me. Suddenly people were coming up to me asking me what to do, and soon I found myself setting up the site. Robert was put in charge of organizing our first line of triage, and Scott helped our team.
We had put about an hour of work into organizing our site, and the building manager had just stepped over to tell me they were making the entire building available for the triage effort, when suddenly I saw a group of very official-looking fire officials walk up to our site, which had by this time become semi-organized. People were split into the proper triage areas, we had ambulances lining up, and people were assigned specific tasks. The police had roped off the area.
One of the FDNY officials was Lt. Thomas Eppinger, who strangely enough is a spitting image of my old EMT instructor’s son. I actually thought it was him at first. Lt. Eppinger stepped into our crowd and asked, “Who’s in control here?” Having worked with firefighters before when I did EMS in Westchester, I knew better than to try to step on their territory, so I told him, “I’m not in control, but I’m trying to organize things so far!” He seemed to appreciate that. FDNY was able to come in and bring the heavy equipment. They brought in a MERV, kind of a mobile operating room-MASH unit on a bus. We decided to park it out in front of the street, and Lt. Eppinger decided to move our site more toward the middle of the block.
I think Lt. Eppinger appreciated the work that had already been done, so he appointed me in charge of the medical services at the site. He would take over the fire and organizational stuff, and I would be in charge of all things medical: assigning doctors to teams, getting and organizing equipment, tracking patients, and making sure patients were receiving the care they needed. I even got a little red fire marshal hat that I wore the rest of the day. (Lt. Eppinger said I had to wear it so he could find me when he needed to.)
During the next three hours Lt. Eppinger and I managed to build our little triage site into a full-scale, professional emergency triage operation worthy of a disaster the size and scale of the WTC attack. We had a surgical bus with several surgeons. Paris Datillo, a nurse at the NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital ER, was assigned to the bus to organize materials and assist the surgeons. Paris responded to the events of the day in the most professional and efficient manner, and kept totally calm. Paris and I kept reassuring each other that things were going to be OK, despite the chaos.
And so our site was finally set up. We had doctors from practically every medical field — pediatrics, OB/GYN, radiology, surgery, neurology, internal medicine, emergency medicine, cardiology, psychiatry and family practice. And there were nurses from every specialty I can think of.
We also had a team of counselors, psychiatrists, priests, ministers and chaplains who were organizing to provide emotional support to our patients. I was hugely impressed with the dedication of the group, led by Richard Gins. They banded together, bonded quickly and became a team much faster than the medical groups did. They waited toward the back of the site, setting up some of the chairs on the grassy courtyard as a makeshift counseling center.
The only problem was, as New York Times reporter Matthew Klam wrote in his report, we needed patients. That is, there weren’t many coming to us. And this led to frustration. Although we had treated about 10 patients by that time, mostly for minor injuries and chest pain, it didn’t seem like enough, and people were getting antsy. Everyone was so anxious, the only way they could feel any control of the situation was to help someone. But without people there to help, it left responders feeling demoralized.
The first sign of frustration was seen when the surgeons seemed to run off, leaving Paris in the MERV by herself. One of the last surgeons I talked to said something like, “Nothing’s happening here; I’m getting out of here.” With that, he left us.
Suddenly, my cellphone rang — a surprise, since service had been very poor. I had heard that the antenna for most cellphones was on the World Trade Center, so it seemed surprising that it was suddenly working. It was my parents. I told them I was OK, and they told me that my friend Dave had called to say he was fine. Dave called me a minute or two later. I told him that I went to Ground Zero because I thought he was in the building, and warned him never to scare me like that again. He asked me, if I thought he was in the building, what did I think I could do to help him at that point? I pondered that for a minute before hanging up on him. Looking back, I guess it was the only way I could feel any control over the thought of having lost him as a friend.
As the afternoon wore on, and people were getting tired, NPR reporter Marianne McCune came by our site. She wanted to give a live report, but her cellphone had run out of power. She borrowed mine and was able to give her report. After making the call and being on the air live, she interviewed me and recorded the interview on her tape recorder, as I described the layout of the triage site. Her report was later aired; friends in North Carolina and Massachusetts said they heard me.
Although people were getting frustrated without more patients, there was a moment of excitement mixed with panic when 7 World Trade Center seemed to buckle, and finally collapsed as we all stood by on Greenwich Avenue and watched. I didn’t realize how close we were, but when it collapsed, the smoke came up the canyon toward our site, setting off a stampede of terrified people. The stampede almost ran over everyone at our site, while I yelled, “SLOW DOWN!! DO NOT PANIC!!” at the top of my lungs, leaving my voice sore until the next day. You can hear me screaming on the NPR report, right after my interview gets cut off. It was odd to watch 7 WTC fall down. It almost seemed unimpressive, compared to the destruction that was already there, but a new plume of smoke certainly scared people. Some people in our counseling group were injured as the crowd broke through the yellow tape and rushed our site.
Our volunteers were getting more frustrated. Lt. Eppinger told me he was concerned that people would start leaving, and we would suddenly be put into action with half our group missing. So we decided we would try to keep up morale.
It was then that Matthew Modine, star of movies like Full Metal Jacket, Gross Anatomy and As The Band Played On, appeared. He tied a piece of yellow police tape around his arm — the sign we were using for “people who belonged at the site” — and joined us. Modine was very nice. I talked to him and thanked him for coming, and he said something to the effect of, “whatever I can do to help support you guys, I’m here.” I think it helped people from getting too frustrated. If there’s a celebrity at your site, people think it’s worth sticking around for.
I told Modine that the movie As The Band Played On was one of the reasons I went to medical school and became an epidemiologist. He told me he was flattered to know one of his movies had made a positive impression on someone. Odd to have that kind of a conversation amid all the chaos and confusion, but he was very nice to stop by and hang around for a while.
The group of volunteers across the street had now swollen to hundreds. People were coming up to me constantly, asking how they could help. A few people stand out in my mind. One man could barely speak English but said, “I am a metal cutter; how can I help?” Another man told me he was a rescue worker in Israel and wanted to help. Another man said he was from Poland but was a construction worker and wanted to help dig through the rubble. I had to focus on keeping up the medical effort of our triage site, so I sent them all over to the corner.
As the evening started to set in, Paris and I kept joking with each other, making a genuine effort to keep up morale at our site and keep people interested. Darkness began to fall. We had set up emergency lighting so that we could keep our triage site running well into the next day, but at around 8:30 p.m. the decision came from Lt. Eppinger that FDNY had ordered our site to close.
Our total patient count? 19. We treated a few patients with chest pain and respiratory distress, but most were patients with minor bruises and cuts, and a few came to us just to have the ashes washed out of their eyes. Even our fearless counseling team was demoralized, having been unable to offer assistance to any of the firefighters who came to our site with stories of having lost so many of their colleagues.
I informed the various medical team leaders that the site was officially closing. I asked people to stay to help put the equipment into ambulances so that it could be brought to St. Vincent’s Hospital for further use, but people generally don’t like to clean up after their mess. So I ended up cleaning up the site with a few other key leaders until about 10. Around that time, I started to head uptown with Robert Cartwright, Scott and Scott Caruthers, one of the ministers in our counseling group.
As we walked north on Greenwich, now dark and empty, we passed several fire trucks loaded with firefighters. They were covered with soot and ash from the collapse, and were collecting their hoses and fixing some of their gear. Everyone was so tired from the day. Although our medical team was completely exhausted, I knew their day was far from over. I gave them all a tired smile and said thanks, as we walked on, looking for a subway. It was strangely quiet for downtown Manhattan.
Time moves on. As I look back on 20 years since 9/11, I’m often reminded about how much the world has changed. I recently compared photos from Sept. 11, 2001, with some Google Street photos captured around 2019 — Greenwich Street has changed a lot. While some buildings are still recognizable, others are new, and the courtyard where our triage site once staged ambulances and treated patients is now barely recognizable to me.
Fortunately, I have a number of good friends who I met that day, and we’re still in contact, even 20 years later. Our shared stories and memories have been a tremendous source of strength, and help me to better understand what we all did and how exactly we all met that day — answering the call for help.
Other notable world crises have since appeared, such as climate change and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic. Like 9/11, they both serve as a reminder of our dependence on thinkers and heroes who are brave enough to walk into chaos, and who try to create structure, civility and humanity. I’m constantly humbled by my fellow health care workers who currently fill this role.
I hope the next generation recognizes the heroes all around us. Whether they work to provide a better life for their children, run into the ruins of a collapsed building, or intubate a patient in distress, these heroes all deserve recognition and support. I take great comfort in knowing they are all around us.