Robert Dirk Stanley
On September 11th, 2001, I was a third-year medical student working at Brooklyn Hospital on Flatbush and DeKalb avenues. I had just started my six-week pediatric rotation the day before.
Our morning routine started with a case conference, where we all discuss interesting clinical cases. So, at around 9:00, we headed into a conference room for our morning meeting. Right before the meeting started, someone briefly mentioned, “Hey, did you hear there was an explosion at the World Trade Center?”. Having been in NY for the 1993 bombing, I guess I realized the potential for a disastrous terrorist attack, but the more likely rationalization (before 9/11) was that an air conditioner exploded or something 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 9:40, 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. Falling? You’ve got to be kidding me. This isn’t some movie.
However, I do have a best friend who worked in the WTC. At that point, starting to believe one of the towers might have actually fallen, I started to worry. I could feel my heart racing.
I ran upstairs to the Nursery (where I was that week) to check out the TV (good for late night nursing), and to find out what was going on. The TV was on and all of 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.
On the TV, all I saw was one tower still standing, burning, and the other collapsed. Suddenly, all I could think about is my best friend. He just started his job there about three weeks ago. Which tower was he in? What floor was he on, again? I started to completely panic. I was really worried that he was in the building.
I started to react in a strange way, 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 cell phone if he knew Dave was OK. I called my own parents, asking them to find out if Dave was OK, and to call me as soon as they heard anything.
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 really 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 guess I realized the nursery was the last place I wanted to be. Having five years of experience doing EMS up in Westchester, I guess it kind of came naturally to me to tell the nurses, “I don’t think they need me here right now”, and I left (with Scott in tow) to go down to the ER.
Scott and I rode the elevator down 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 run-down 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. The press said he didn’t, but you know the government wouldn’t admit to that.” (Note : This was her opinion, not mine, but it does show how hard it is to get the facts in a moment of chaos.)
I walked out to the ambulance staging area (again with Scott in tow), and all I saw were thousands of people walking up Flatbush Avenue. Some were completely covered in dust. Lots 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 my best friend Dave.
At this point, the best way to describe my emotion was a mix of helplessness, anger, and sadness. I was crying uncontrollably. One of the residents (Mike Lynette) 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 really 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. 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.
So, 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 evil did something to him.”
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 he looked nervous. “Scott, seriously, stay here,” I told him, but he seemed to cautiously follow me instead. “Do you think we’ll get in trouble for leaving the hospital?” he asked. “Scott, the World Trade Center just collapsed, sometimes there are bigger things to worry about than getting in trouble.”
We started to walk down Flatbush Avenue, towards Junior’s, 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 as 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 Juniors, then turned right to walk towards the Manhattan Bridge.
With police holding all non-emergency vehicles at a standstill, Flatbush was in complete gridlock. The road going over the Manhattan bridge was basically empty to vehicles, but was moderately congested with people running away from Manhattan. I remember seeing a few odd things—One man dragging his suitcase. Another man rolling some kind of a clothes rack.
The three of us walked up to the foot of the Manhattan Bridge, where there were police cars blocking the roadway so that only emergency vehicles and personnel could get through.
We waited there for a minute, 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 going over. While we waited there, we were joined by another doctor who identified himself as a radiologist. I think he said he worked at Mt. 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!”
I’m not sure what the building was, in retrospect. It looked like some kind of a grey, concrete-and-marble, federal/school-type of building. All I know is that she was up on the second floor, and the building had some kind of a nurse/infirmary that we were able to get some makeshift supplies from. We first evaluated our pregnant mother in front of us. 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 maxi-pads and paper towels.
Fortunately, after inspecting the patient, the radiologist reported that she still had time before she was going to deliver. Great. Sensing a need for supplies (all I had was my stethoscope), we packed a plastic bag full of maxi-pads, tape, and as many gloves as we could fit, and brought it along.
We carried our mother down to the front of the building, and reassured her. Someone with an SUV/Van-type mobile drove up and volunteered to take her. We put her in the SUV with the nurse from the building and directed them to take her to TBH as soon as possible. I remember there being a moment where I thought, “Shouldn’t we go with her?”, 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 should be okay and this is not a normal situation, I think we might be needed down there.”
Note : 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.
So 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 nothing came for four or five minutes, we figured we would hoof it. With the policeman’s permission, we started walking over the Manhattan Bridge towards 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?”-type of talk going on among us, since now the picture was emerging more vividly than ever. But we kept walking.
Around halfway over the bridge, an emergency vehicle pulled over, a red Buick-Regal-type car with a emergency flasher stuck onto 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 a peripheral role, like, “Police Safety Officer” or something. Nonetheless, she was in as much of a rush as we were in, 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 the Mt. Sinai.”
So 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.
As we walked south, we were still fighting 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 in a Korean Grocery. The sun was actually pretty hot that day, and Scott was complaining of the heat. I think Robert also suggested that we get some water, not only for us, but for emergency purposes. We walked into the grocer and asked for water. I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to pay for it, or not. I hoped that they didn’t ask us for money, since none of us really had any. 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 further 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 a question, I guess because they figured we were medical people going down to help.
At one point, the sky started to get darker and there was this fine ash/dust falling all over. We actually stopped three Hispanic ladies who were walking out of the mess, and asked them for their masks, since we were walking into the mess. They happily gave us their masks and headed north while we walked south.
We walked only a few blocks further south, the sky getting darker, and the dust getting so bad that I had to squint to keep it out of my eyes. The space between my mask and my 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. Scott started to get nervous again, and Robert and I offered him the opportunity to go back, but he followed along.
The street followed down until we hit Fulton Street. Robert seemed excited to find Fulton street, since he told us he had worked down in the neighborhood before and knew the area. I remember Fulton was down 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, and how my high school visited the fish market back in 1988.
As we turned onto Fulton, the scene changed dramatically. Now 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 really 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 final scenes in the movie “Titanic”, when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett 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 in feeling. 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 actually 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” hung in front of them. There was a small group of 2-3 teenagers looking nervous as they stood in front of a broken storefront, looking inside the store. I thought they might be looting, which pissed me off. I walked up to them to try to figure out what they were trying to steal, since the store looked like some kind of a jewelry store, and briefly said, “You guys aren’t seriously looting, are you?” but then they looked back at me, and I realized that if an altercation were to happen, the police wouldn’t be there to investigate. So I left them alone, and the three of us continued walking up Fulton.
And in the midst of all of the doom and despair was suddenly this young woman, in her 20s, who was standing on a street corner all by herself. 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 amidst the chaos, kind of like making sure your suit is pressed before you’re going down in the Titanic. But she stood there, alone, offering it to the few people who were still there.
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.
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 kind of 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.
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 several times over various things. 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 remember 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 4-5 inches of dust that laid on 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 get them out.
We walked on, looking for anyone, any cries for help, when suddenly we came upon what I call “THE STUMP”. The Stump was the remaining pile of burning debris that sat there at the site of the former Twin Towers. It burned intensely. Not just a crackling-type fire, but a real blow-furnace type fire, like when they are blowing glass and put it into that inferno to melt it. The WTC was right in front of us, the pile several stories high, burning intensely. And 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 firemen were rushing down to the rubble, carrying hoses.
Another interesting note : There were several cars parked along the side streets that were completely crushed by debris, but there were also several that were burned. I was trying to figure out how a car would be set on fire. Did a fireball race down one of the canyons? One of the cars that was crushed and burning had it’s alarm going, amazingly. “God will someone shut off that alarm? I hate those car alarms!” was overheard. It shows the morbid sense of humor the firefighters were having at that point.
We walked further north, asking the firemen and police repeatedly if there was a triage station 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 firemen at that point 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 Hatzollah Ambulance that was partly crushed, its front windshield cracked, but it was still driveable. We jumped in and joined several orthodox EMTs who were also looking for where to go. They were a very nice bunch. Apparently, they were right under the overpass that led to the WTC, when it collapsed around them, and their ambulance got stuck under part of the overpass. Rather than just sit there helplessly, though, they managed to wedge it out from the overpass, and kept driving around, looking for where to go.
Their 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 firemen and policemen if anything had been organized. Nobody seemed to know. Finally, one fireman 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 Street, is the site of the Citicorp building. It was an ideal place for a triage unit. It has a decent sized courtyard, perfect for setting up the triage area. It has a good stretch of street in front of it, perfect for setting up an ambulance staging area. And it has a big red metal umbrella—A piece of modern art—But the big 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 there were a bunch of EMS workers, paramedics, doctors, and other volunteers standing around, but still nobody to organize it.
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.”
And then 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.
So suddenly 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 that 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 do remember shouting:
“No way, wait, we’re not going to wait. Okay, 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 street corner for ambulances to park.)
(In front of the group of 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.”
(In front of the group of doctors / nurses) : “Okay, 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.”
(In front of the group of paramedics / EMTs) : “Okay, 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.”
(In front of the group of 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 in front of the Ryder sign. 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?”
(In front of the doctors who identified themselves as emergency physicians): “Okay, 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.”
I guess at that point Robert was put in charge of organizing triage. Meanwhile, Scott continued to complain. I’m not sure if he was bored or nervous, but he tagged along, helping where he was asked.
We had put about an hour of work into organizing our site, and the building manager from the building 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. At least 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 Top Eppinger, who strangely enough is a spitting image of my old EMT instructor’s son. I actually thought it was him at first.
Tom stepped into our crowd and asked, “Who’s in control here?” Having worked with firemen before when I did EMS up in Westchester, I know 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!”
I think he appreciated that. At that point, 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 Tom decided to move our site more towards the middle of the block.
At that point, I think Tom 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 / organizational stuff, and I would be in charge of assigning doctors to the right place, organizing the teams, getting and organizing equipment, 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. (Tom said I had to wear it so he could find me if he needed to.)
So during the next three hours Tom and I managed to build our little triage site into a full-scale, professional emergency triage site worthy of a disaster the size and scale of the WTC attack. We had a surgical bus with several surgeons. Paris, a nurse at 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 okay, despite the chaos.
And so our site was 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.
We also had an entire team of counselors, psychiatrists, priests, ministers, and chaplains who were organizing to provide emotional support to our patients. I was really 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 towards 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 the reporter Matthew Klam said in his New York Times Magazine article, “we needed bodies.” That is, we weren’t getting a whole lot of patients coming our way. And this led to frustration. (Note : Matthew Klam helped our counseling group, and later wrote about his perspective of the day in the New York Times Magazine section.)
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. Of course, everyone was so anxious that the only way they could feel any control of the situation that day was to help someone. But without people there to help, it left people 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 cell phone managed to ring. This was a surprise, since service had been very poor. I had heard the antenna for most cell phones was on the World Trade Center when it fell, so it seemed surprising that it was suddenly working. My parents called. I told them I was okay, and they told me that my friend Dave had called in to say he was okay. Dave called me a minute or two later. I told him that I came down 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, Marianne McCune, a reporter from NPR, came by our site. She wanted to give a report live, but her cell phone 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 (I had friends in North Carolina and Massachusetts tell me they heard me), and I recently found it on the WNYC web site, in RealAudio.
Although people were getting frustrated without more patients, there was actually 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 towards our site, setting off a stampede of scared people. The stampede almost ran over everyone in 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 7WTC fall down. It almost seemed unimpressive, compared to the destruction that was already there, but a new plume of smoke certainly scared people. I understand some people in our counseling group were physically injured as the crowd broke through the yellow tape and rushed our triage site.
And yet, people were getting more frustrated. Tom, the lieutenant from FDNY, told me he was concerned that people would start leaving, and we would suddenly be put into action with half of our group missing. So we decided we would make a real effort to keep up morale.
Fortunately, Matthew Modine, the actor and star of movies like Full Metal Jacket, Gross Anatomy, and As The Band Played On, stopped by. He tied a piece of yellow police tape around his arm (the sign that we were using for “people who belonged on the site”) and joined us. Mr. Modine was very nice. I talked to him and thanked him for coming down, and he said something to the effect of “whatever I can do to help support you guys, I’m here.” I actually think it helped people from getting frustrated. At least if there is a celebrity at your site, people think it’s worth sticking around for.
(I was also able to tell Mr. Modine that the movie And The Band Played On was one of the reasons I went to medical school - He told me he was flattered to know one of his movies had made a positive impression in someone. Odd to have that kind of a conversation amidst all of 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 in front of the Ryder sign 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 told me 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 under the Ryder sign.
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. Unfortunately, darkness started to set in. We had set up emergency lighting so that we could keep our triage site running well into the next day, but at around 8:30pm the decision came from Lieutenant Eppinger that FDNY had ordered our site to close.
Our total patient count? 19 patients. 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 firemen who came to our site after having lost so many of their co-workers.
At that point, I informed the various medical team leaders that the site was officially closing up. 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 of course, 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 10:00pm. And around that time, I started to head uptown with Robert Cartwright, Scott, and Scott Caruthers, one of the ministers in our fearless counseling group.
As we walked north on Greenwich, now dark and empty, we passed several fire trucks loaded with firemen. The firemen were covered with the soot and ash from the collapse, and were collecting their hoses and fixing some of their gear. Everyone was so tired from the day we had all just had. Although our medical team was completely exhausted, I knew the firemen had just started their long job. I gave the firemen a tired smile and said thanks to them as we walked on, looking for a subway.
The Canal Street subway station was closed, but we walked further north until we found an open station. MTA was not even collecting fares - The subways were running for free, to allow people to get where they needed. The N and R trains were not running, since they run right through Cortland Street and the WTC site, but we managed to find a Q train back to Brooklyn.
I said goodbye to everyone, as we all split up, and finally found my way back to Bay Ridge, where I picked up my cell phone and called a few friends to tell them I was still alive and well. Most of my friends weren’t home, but I left messages telling them that I was okay. When I came home, the email awaiting me was full of ominous-sounding messages saying things like, “Uh, we’re watching what’s going on in New York, are you okay? Please send us a letter so we know you’re okay.”
There’s really not a way to explain how that day has affected me. I know it’s different for every New Yorker. Many families senselessly lost loved ones. Some raced in to help rescue people and to put out fires. Still others have lost their jobs, their apartments, and their livelihood. There are too many things to be said about that day, and I don’t think any one person can ever really get the full picture. I think a lot of us keep trying to understand it by asking everyone we know what happened, where they were and what they were doing that day. And every person’s experience helps put another piece of the puzzle in place, to try to make sense of what happened. But this puzzle is too big—Nobody will ever really understand all of the pieces of the puzzle. The best you can do is to ask the people who lived through September 11th, or the people who have lived through any war or senseless tragedy, and let their accounts give us all a little more insight into humanity.