September 11, 2001, 4 PM. I am riding shotgun in an ambulance going 70 MPH eastbound on Route 78 in New Jersey. All of our flashing lights were on but there was no need for sirens. The highway was six lanes of concrete each way – and empty. On a road know for heavy traffic and slowdowns, we were the only vehicle in sight. We are headed to Liberty State Park directly across the river from the World Trade Center. We, and many others, were tasked with treating the survivors of the attack earlier in the day.
My day started like most Mondays, lamenting how quickly the weekend passed yet glad I had a job that I liked. I performed the rituals that brought me to my office in Princeton, NJ by 8:30 AM. All life was normal until about 9:30 when Linda, my wife, called to say that a plane had hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center. My assumption was that it must be a small aircraft like the one that hit the Empire State Building many years ago.
Then we heard it was a large passenger jet. All business, anything work-related, stopped. We were all consumed by the tragedy that was unfolding. We tried to get the monitor in the conference room to behave like a TV. A couple of small radios were delivering the news at a volume they were never meant to reach. We were somewhat satiated by knowing what was going on and at the same time numbed by the knowledge of the events.
When the second plane hit, everything changed again. Instead of being attacked by a sinister lone wolf, we were at war with a larger force. Later this would be verified by the attack on the Pentagon and downing in Shanksville. An announcement was made that the office was closed and we should all go home to be with our families. The few who remained long enough to hear the message quickly left.
At that time, I was an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), the Captain of the New Vernon Volunteer First Aid Squad, and a Crew Chief for a four-person response team. In the morning, as events unfolded, a single decision in Trenton put into place a plan worked out years before. The plan was revised as technology changed and threats morphed into potentially bizarre scenarios.
When the first call came in for us to send a squad to Liberty State Park in Jersey City, New Jersey, I was still in Princeton. Most of the available squad member had already come to the firehouse just in case they were needed. A team of four suited up and were off. By 3 PM the news was still getting worse. Images of dazed people walking away from the attack and the continued collapse of structures dominated our life. We were also concerned about fellow squad members and neighbors who worked in the towers.
At 3 PM I decided to replace the squad that had responded, or if the demand was too high, to augment it. That put us on Route 78 heading east with food, coffee and a change of clothes. We arrived at a well organized scene run by people who had studied mass casualty scenarios. There were approximately 125 ambulances, 350 EMT’s, 100 paramedics, surgical teams, ER doctors and nurses, many NJ State Police officers with their mobile communications center, and a crisis team in case any of us needed counseling from the carnage we might encounter. A city of medical professionals and support personnel was assembled in just a few hours.
The only thing that was missing were patients. Those who were in or near the World Trade Center that morning either died or walked away. Those who walked away wanted to get home, get cleaned up, be with their loved one, and if needed, see their own doctor.
Liberty State Park is on the west side of the Hudson River, the World Trade Center on the east side. I found a bench facing the fire and smoke on the other side of the river. I could have been at the bottom of that pile. Until two years ago I worked there at Tower 7 of the World Trade Center. Since I was an EMT, I was asked at the time to be on our company’s Emergency Response Team. The problem with being someone who responds to emergencies is that you learn to run the wrong way, toward the problem and not away from it. We are also taught that if we stay alive we can help others. It is tough to make the right decision when the adrenaline is pumping.
Many of us spent the evening watching the ferry dock to the east waiting for patients to be transported to us. About 10 PM we saw a ferry pull out and head toward us. We prepared for service, but it wasn’t needed. The ferry headed south and went around the southern tip of Manhattan. We were told later it was taking the bodies to a makeshift morgue set up along the East River.
In the early morning hours, we were told we could return home and await further orders. They came two days later. The medical crews of the NYFD would support the workers at the World Trade Center in their rescue and recovery efforts. Our squad and many others would go to New York City and handle normal emergency medical situations. That lasted for only about a month but the world had changed. We lost friends and neighbors in our town and all of the neighboring towns. The classes we took, our security precautions, our equipment and our “be prepared for anything” attitude changed. For those of you still on duty, thank you and stay prepared. We have no idea what will come next.