Bearing Witness
Responders tell their stories

No magazine page, no book, no summation could ever properly outline the tip of the iceberg that was the EMS response on Sept. 11, 2001. Recounting the moments experienced by thousands of personnel who committed themselves to that day’s events will take years.

Nine days removed from the horror, we begin the process. What follows is a selection of stories from EMS providers who found themselves thrown into the chaos of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a barren field in Pennsylvania. These individuals—who reflect our diverse EMS family—shared their stories with us openly and in the spirit of helping their fellow brothers and sisters. Each narrative, in and of itself, bears unique witness, allowing us readers to digest a piece of the madness one voice at a time.—Lisa Dionne, Editorial Director, JEMS

World Trade Center—
I was in the police academy 25 miles north of the World Trade Center. The academy director came into class and told us, “Terrorists have attacked the World Trade Center—a plane has flown into it.” We thought it was some kind of terrorist training exercise until he took us to a TV in a nearby room.

Soon we wound up in the debris, digging for any possible survivors. Both towers had collapsed. It was chaotic and dark. There was smoke everywhere from fires burning and five inches of ash on the ground—it was like walking in slushy snow. I figured out where I was when I visualized the remains of Engine 10 and Ladder 10 right in front of me—the station had been destroyed. I also saw a row of 15 ambulances that had staged as part of the first wave responding to the first crash. They were crushed—completely gutted by falling debris.

At one point, we were digging, and I slipped and almost fell 45 feet into a hole. Another time, I looked up from digging to see a traffic light hanging over my head by its wire. In my excitement, I forgot all about scene safety—10-second scene survey, etc. Forgot or didn’t care. I don’t know. I really had no business being in there.

I’m sure the critics will say it was haphazard, that there were too many rescuers. But desperate times breed desperate measures: We were looking not for victims but for friends. I hope the Rescue Randys of the world don’t start their Monday morning quarterbacking when this is all over. There wasn’t a single person on scene operating at 100% mentally. Everyone there was in some level of shock, and I’m sure it affects your thinking, your reactions—how could it not? Physically, though, everybody ran at 150%.

By 9 p.m. that night, I was so hungry. I hadn’t eaten all day. Someone who owns a bagel store showed up with hundreds of bagels and orange juice. I got a wet, soggy potato knish. It tasted like lobster and steak. As I ate, it occurred to me that all the crap raining down on us could be toxic, that perhaps I was standing in a huge hazmat zone. But I didn’t give a shit: I wanted that knish. More, I think I wanted control. Control had been taken away from all of us. Those of us in this field want to help—we want to “make it all better.” But on Tuesday, we couldn’t.

I got home around 4 a.m. and cried like a baby. Took three showers and still smelled like smoke. On Wednesday, I was nursing a head cold and runny nose when someone mentioned that the Office of Emergency Management was testing the debris for anthrax. Flu-like symptoms day one; feel great day two; drop dead day three. And there I was sniffling.

I remembered that the shoes I’d worn to the World Trade Center were at home. I freaked and called a friend to go to my house and take them outside where no dust residue could hurt my kids. It turned out to be a false alarm. These rumors—all derivatives of stories you hear in domestic preparedness training—take on a life of their own.

—John Hanchar, NREMT-P, police officer, Rockland County, N.Y., is a former FDNY paramedic and a former tech advisor for Third Watch. He also worked at the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Hoboken, N.J., operations—
Shortly after two commercial airliners crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, University Hospital EMS, Newark, N.J., began a recall of its Special Operations Group. By 10:20 a.m. a task force consisting of four BLS units, two ALS units, one mass casualty response unit (MCRU), one logistical support unit and two division commanders left EMS headquarters in Newark en route to the Holland Tunnel to fulfill our assigned role in the N.J./N.Y. mutual aid agreement.

While en route, the task force was diverted to the Hoboken Port Authority Trans Hudson (PATH) complex, one mile north of the Holland Tunnel. This diversion was prompted by intelligence that a large number of victims were self-evacuating from New York City by public transport.

Arriving at the Hoboken Terminal, we were briefed by the EMS branch director and told that at least 200 victims of the WTC incident were expected to arrive at the facility. The task force went to work, immediately providing support to Hoboken EMS, and a triage station and treatment areas were deployed from the MCRU in short order.

The Hoboken PATH station normally serves as a New Jersey Transit train station and a commuter ferry dock. When the task force arrived, the facility was still bustling with commuter traffic from other points in Manhattan not affected by the explosions and subsequent collapses. Our first concern was that patients arriving from the affected area would be allowed to commingle with non-affected commuters, and we wouldn’t be able to capture patients in need of care. This was mitigated by explaining the importance of the issue to the senior officials of New Jersey Transit and having them shut the station to all train and pedestrian traffic.

We realized early in the incident that these were acts of terrorism. Armed with knowledge gained during the 1993 WTC incident, we felt the victims could have been contaminated by a chemical or biological agent, toxic industrial chemicals or construction material, such as asbestos.

Therefore, incident commanders determined the establishment of a decontamination corridor would be necessary to screen all arriving evacuees and patients. We requested a hazmat team through the IC. The short-term solution was for the Hoboken Fire Department to deploy two handlines to serve as a temporary decon system.

We knew the patients we were expecting would come by ferry. To prevent these patients from escaping our decon system, the entrance to the terminal was closed, and all pedestrian traffic from the ferry dock was diverted to a holding pen we constructed using police barricades already at the scene.

When the first group of 300 patients arrived, they were covered with a dry, white powder. We placed them into the holding area and processed them two at a time through the handline decon.

The first formal hazmat assets (Nutley Fire Department and Middlesex County Hazmat) arrived on scene and set up mass decon tents. After the tents were operational, the handlines were demobilized, and we began to process patients in earnest. With the resources and knowledge of these two hazmat agencies, we were able to process 10–15 patients rather than two at a time. This resulted in our ability to decon almost 300 victims per hour.

While the decon was being accomplished, personnel were deployed with chemical agent monitors to ascertain the risk level the victims presented to rescuers. All readings were negative, confirming that the contaminant was building materials or asbestos.

It wasn’t long before the first non-ambulatory victims arrived and were processed through a separate non-ambulatory decon area. During non-ambulatory decon, patients were placed on spine boards, stripped, washed and re-clothed before being transferred to triage and treatment areas. Many of the victims were cleared for release by on-scene physicians; approximately 70 were transported to area hospitals.

It’s difficult to confirm the exact number of victims decontaminated, triaged and treated. Our traditional method of using predetermined packs of triage tags worked until the third hour of operations when we used our last tag. At that point we had utilized 1,400 tags. We continued to receive, decontaminate and treat victims for at least seven hours after depletion of our tags.

This was a valuable learning experience. Most of our MCI planning had focused on large transportation incidents. I don’t think there was anyone who ever thought there might be the necessity to triage and decontaminate thousands of victims in one day. Had we considered the fact that we were indeed the “parking lot” for New York with the potential to receive 300 evacuees and patients at a time in ferry boats, perhaps we would have approached our planning differently.

—Eugene J. O’Neill, NREMT-B is the lead instructor for the Domestic Preparedness/Hazardous Materials Planning and Training Unit at University Hospital EMS, Newark, N.J.

I had already seen the first tower get hit on the news that morning. I was actually en route to a fire in Rosalyn (Va.) when the Pentagon was attacked. On my way out the door of the fire station, I warned my crew to stay alert. One of them just looked at me and said, “This is Arlington. Nothing like that will ever happened here.” When I saw him later that day at the incident, he told me he’d never say anything like that again.

Engine 101 actually saw the jetliner plow into the northwest side of the Pentagon. The radio crackled, “Engine 101—emergency traffic, a plane has gone down into the Pentagon.”

I made a quick U-turn and was on scene within a minute to a minute and a half of the initial impact. En route, I remembered my wife was scheduled to be on a flight to Dulles at 10 a.m.

People were just leaving their vehicles on Highway 110 and staring in disbelief. I wanted to put myself in a position where we wouldn’t be threatened by a secondary explosion. I set up triage, treatment and transport sectors in a grassy area on a hill with a good vantage point of the incident. I special ordered 20 paramedic units and a bus for the walking wounded, along with a couple of helicopters.

We weren’t alone on scene. There was an outpouring of help from military personnel—doctors, nurses, paramedics, EMTs, stretcher bearers. I also requested the response of our north EMS supervisor, Capt. Alan Dorn. He arrived quickly and did a fantastic job of managing these areas and coordinating with the military’s medical personnel. Chief James Bonzano arrived on scene and established an official EMS division.

Five or six minutes after my arrival, I traveled alongside the structure and came upon 13 serious burn victims. Many of them also had shrapnel wounds. There was one guy—I couldn’t tell if he was Army or Marine Corp. because his uniform was so badly burned—who had used his hands to shield his face from the shrapnel, and his fingers had been cut clean off. But he wouldn’t let us treat him until we helped the others.

As we tended to those 13 wounded, we received an order to evacuate the area because of reports that another jet was coming up the Potomac.

We all agreed we weren’t going to leave those patients, so we switched to a rapid transport mode. We put multiple patients in Medics 102 and 105 and a park service helicopter and told them to just go to the hospital—with limited on-scene care.

We were fortunate in many ways. All our off-duty officers were at a mandatory seminar in Arlington, so they were within two minutes of the Pentagon. We also had other staff attending a nearby International Monetary Fund planning meeting. The military personnel on scene were extremely helpful in keeping the scene organized.

To aid in transport efforts, we had the police clear Highway 110 in both directions so we would have free highway access for rapid patient transport.

One problem we had was keeping military personnel away from the crash site. They felt compelled to try to run in and save their buddies, but the building was heavily involved in the fire. We had to use firefighters to help restrain them.

Once we did get inside, we were able to see the destruction for ourselves. It was extensive on the interior because of the inertia of the fire and fuel once the jet entered beyond the outer ring. The skin of the building doesn’t tell you squat about the damage. There were some areas where people hadn’t even been burned, but were killed by the forced inhalation of fumes.

We had 10 different fire and EMS agencies officially involved in the incident, and it went as well as it possibly could have. Like at any large incident, units self-dispatched themselves to the incident. Although only 20 units were officially requested, we ended up with 75 units on a scene that generated 92 patients.

—Ed Blunt, Fire and EMS Captain, Arlington County (Va.) Fire Department—initial Pentagon EMS commander

Shanksville, Pa.—
We received the initial dispatch for “plane down, Skyline Drive at Lambertsville Road” at 10:06, Sept. 11, 2001. EMS units were dispatched from both Somerset and Cambria counties, Pa. I was on the second unit to arrive (station 900, based in Somerset, Pa.). The first unit to arrive was station 902, based in Stoystown, Pa.

While en route to the scene, we requested that medical helicopters be dispatched. We also notified local hospitals to prepare for a possible mass casualty situation. As part of this preparation, the hospitals dispatched physicians directly to the scene.

On scene, we assessed the crash site and immediately determined there were no survivors. At that time, neither the size of the aircraft nor the number of victims who had been on board could be determined.

Because there were no survivors, and in view of the events that had just unfolded in New York City and Washington, D.C., there was a concern that chemical or other lethal agents could be present at the scene. Because of this, all other EMS units, medical helicopters and physicians were canceled. Despite the cancellation, three to six EMS units, a physician from Conemaugh Hospital and our medical director did arrive on scene. All rescuers were warned to exercise extreme caution at the scene.

Local firefighters identified a number of small hot spots and fires in the area. When law enforcement agencies arrived on scene, they quickly marked the perimeter of the crash site, restricted access to the location and established a command post for the upcoming investigation.

We set up an EMS sector at the command center with the objective of ensuring the safety of the investigators and others expected to work at the scene in the weeks ahead.

My prayers and blessings are with those who perished on Flight 93, their families and loved ones. There was a strong sense within the command post that there were several heroes on board this plane.

—Jill Miller, EMT-P, Manager, Somerset Area Ambulance Association Inc.


Photo Dave Lagruth
Photo Abraham Schwimmer
Photo Abraham Schwimmer
Photo Michael J. Coppola
Photo Steve Spak
Photo Edie Ambra
Photo Abraham Schwimmer