9/11: Twenty Years Later

In the days following the September 11 attacks, I was one of sixteen paramedics from Elmira and other ambulance services from across Upstate New York to the World Trade Center site.

Expecting time would rob me of some of the finer details, I decided to write about what I saw and experienced so someday I’d be able to tell our children and their children about it.

In the first year or two following the event, it was too difficult to do. After several starts and stops, and much discussion among my friends who were also there, it eventually became easier to remember and write about. The original version was started in September of 2007, and never finished until November of 2008.

This is just one person’s perspective. Others who were there may have other views about it, or what they experienced it differently. And that’s cool, I’m only speaking for myself here, telling my story.

This was never intended to be read by the public. However in 2011, to mark the 10th anniversary of the attacks I submitted it for publication to Broader View Weekly, which ran it as a two part special. With the upcoming 20th anniversary of the attacks I’m again compelled to share it with the public.

This will be the last time I do so.

I’d initially thought to change the names of others in this story, but after twenty years I see no need to do so.

It’s my sincere hope I got this as accurate as possible. Any mistakes are simply due to the passage of time and are unintentional.

*******

You know how when you’re sitting around with the older folks, or watching a show on tv and something like the assassination of President Kennedy comes up people are able to remember precisely where they were and what they were doing that day? I now understand it all too well.

09/11/01 – You’ll hear many people say that 9/11 was one of those spectacular Autumn days, and it truly was. The skies were blue and the sun shining that day, not a cloud in the sky. I was working as a paramedic at Erway Ambulance in Chemung County NY at that time and it was kind of a slow day enabling us to get our morning work done and go get a little breakfast. I was working with my usual Tuesday partner, Dick Vary, or “Grandpa Dick” as I called him. We had just sat down to watch Dick’s favorite morning show, “Imus in the Morning” on MSNBC and there on the screen was the cast of the “Today” show discussing how a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. On the screen they showed live images of the one tower with smoke billowing out of the side. I recall thinking what a freak accident that must have been, how could a not see a tower on a day like today? I also was wondering what the logistics of fighting a fire were in a building so high. 

It was about this time there was another explosion, fire billowing out the side of the other tower. I sat up a bit and said something to Dick along the lines of “What the fuck was that, a gas main or a news helicopter?” They replayed the footage and there on the screen you could see in the lower corner another airplane slamming into the building. It was then that Dick yelled, himself realizing it was another plane and mentioned something about an attack. I made a couple phone calls, one to my parents’ home and another to my own where my wife was sleeping after a night shift at the E.R. Neither answered, so I left a message to turn on the television the minute they got home. It all felt so surreal, and to a kid who was brought up on movies like “Red Dawn”, frightening.

 While we were watching all this unfold another crew, Tom Allen and Kevin Backer came into the station and said if there was anything on TV about the Pentagon being attacked, as they had just heard on the radio. This was inconceivable, and only pushed the anxiety level that much higher. I remember that Kevin, an Army reservist took this news quite close to heart, and told us this meant we were going to war. It was shortly thereafter the TV confirmed that The Pentagon had indeed been hit by an airplane, and Washington DC was being evacuated, including the White House and Congress. ( A person can see it all on old news footage still, but the level of fear seeing this all playing out on live TV is something you would have to have been through to appreciate.)

 I don’t know how much time passed by, but as is the nature of the beast known as EMS, we were sent out of the station on a couple of calls, always with the news on the radio, playing eyewitness accounts, interviews with people looking for their friends and family.

We were sent on a call in Elmira to pick up a drunk guy off the street. The Elmira police officer on scene was Tom Breitung. He asked if we heard about the towers, and we replied we did. He then said something to the effect of “I can’t believe they came down.”

Huh ?

He then went on to tell us that the towers had in fact fallen. In disbelief I asked him if he meant that a few of the top floors collapsed to one side and broke off the main building. The thought of those two buildings coming all the way down was unimaginable, but he assured us they had. My thoughts turned to all those people who were still inside, there couldn’t have been enough time to get them all out. In disbelief, we took the drunk guy to St. Joseph’s Hospital.

 After unloading him, the nurses were asking us how we were doing: were we okay, that kind of thing. Our dispatch center had already set up an alternative number for us to use, keeping the main phone lines open so if help was needed in Manhattan the call could get through. I called in for our run times and told the dispatcher I was willing to go if needed. We then also found out another plane had crashed somewhere in Pennsylvania. No one knew how many more planes had been hijacked and the government had ordered all airplanes to land immediately. The airspace over the continental United States was now officially closed.

 As we were leaving the hospital passing through the waiting room there on the television were the newest scenes coming out of New York. I can only describe it as one of those post-apocalyptic movies where the city is in ruins and it’s every man for himself. The smoke was billowing out of lower Manhattan, overshadowing and blotting out the normal New York City skyline. In that moment, all I wanted to do was to get home, safe in the country, as it felt like the world was now officially coming to an end.

The rest of that shift was a blur.

Any spare moments were spent in front of the TV or with the radio on, listening to the aftermath of the destruction. Wondering what would happen next, and where, speculating on who could do such a thing. The President was whisked from a Florida school after making a brief statement to the media, confirming that America was in fact, under attack. Air Force One was being moved from air base to air base, as D.C. was not safe for the President to return to. Still he was in communication with his staff who were hidden in a secret bunker somewhere. The idea that the President of the United States of America was being kept hidden for his safety was a terrifying thought, as was the idea that this could be happening to us. How was the country being run, and if it wasn’t safe for him, what about the rest of us ? What was coming next ? How vulnerable were we ? At various times throughout the day he would make a brief statement from secret locations, that everything was under control and we would be okay. Never before had I looked to a stranger on TV for reassurance, but that the President said he was okay, and we would be too seemed to help some. But I wouldn’t be totally convinced until he was in D.C. where he belonged.

( Edit: I read in a book a couple years later that the President, despite the advice of his staff and the Secret Service, demanded to return to The White House that night in an effort to help calm the fears of the nation. Despite his numerous gaffes as President, I have always admired him for that. )

 I came home that night and packed a bag, ready to go to New York at a moment’s notice should the call come in. I stayed glued to the TV while my wife was at work, praying for as many people to be pulled from the rubble alive as possible. The number of dead would be, as Mayor Guliani put it, “… more than we could bear,” but there was always hope that number could be lessened. I sat at the computer as well, reading all the news I could, talking by “instant messenger” online to friends as the rescue efforts continued.

For the remainder of the week, nothing else was on our television except the news. I had nightmares of planes and people falling out of the skies, and awoke feeling frightened and helpless to do anything about it. The Boogeyman was now real, and his name was Osama Bin Laden. We learned of how his men had hijacked the planes to use as weapons against us. We learned of the phone calls made from those planes to loved ones at home, by people who knew they weren’t coming home ever again. We also heard stories of the heroics of the passengers of Flight 93 which crashed in Shanksville PA. Knowing their fate, and knowing the plane they were on was now a missile headed for the nation’s capitol, they overtook the hijackers and crashed the plane to the ground. Ordinary citizens made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and doing so possible saved thousands of others.

 9/14/01 – The call from work finally came that Friday shortly after I got home from finishing my shift. Jimmy Allington was on the phone and wanted to know, could I go to NYC with a group of paramedics to help for the weekend. I never hesitated, answering I would be there Saturday at five to leave. I went upstairs to wake my wife Abby, who had again worked the night before. I told her I would be going to NY the following day, I had to do something to help my country, and not being a soldier this was the best way. Of course she was upset, scared of what could happen. It was a natural reaction in those days following the attacks, we now felt like anything was possible. Hell to be honest, I was scared myself, but if people were capable of the acts of heroism we had become familiar with in the news that week, it was the least I could do to help. Abby called in to work and explained to them the situation and that she would not be coming into work that night. To this day I appreciate her co-workers who made schedule changes with her, enabling us to spend the evening together. Looking back, I don’t believe we watched any news that night, but a non violent movie or something similar.

The following day was spent doing things around the house as well as a new chore, answering the phone. Apparently the local news had gotten wind of our upcoming trip causing friends and family to call and discuss what I’d be doing, and to us me well. One call that stands out was from my grandmother who sounded very upset, and no matter what I said, would not be assured that I was going to be okay. I told her to relax. “The President was there yesterday, so it must be safe.” Her response was, “He is not my grandson.“

Star Gazette – September 16, 2001

When the time finally came to leave, I began to wonder if maybe I shouldn’t just stay home and let someone else go in my place. I was concerned about what I might see, or that something else would happen and I wouldn’t return home. (Sure in hindsight it maybe seems melodramatic but at that time nothing seemed impossible.) However the compulsion to do something, anything, was strong, which got me out the door and down the road.

The trip to New York was pretty uneventful overall. We were part of a multi-agency convoy of ambulance services from all over Upstate New York. I forget now what the total number of ambulances was at that time, but it’s safe to say more than a dozen. Sixteen paramedics and EMT’s from Erway’s alone were going, and those who weren’t picked to go helped by working here at home for those who had. What a sight it must have been, all those ambulances going down the highway in a line, leaving no doubt as to what our destination was. Any toll booths we encountered we were simply waved through by the attendant, no charge. They knew where we were going, and this was their way to pitch in.

 It seems to me that things got a little more somber as we approached New York City. I can still recall the first glimpse of lower Manhattan from the George Washington Bridge. The smoke still rising into the sky, accentuated by the floodlights used for the twenty four hour a day rescue operations. Looking out the small side window of the ambulance I rode in, I simply uttered,” Holy shit.” But what I was thinking was, “That must be what the mouth of Hell looks like.”

We came into the city and as we turned on to Broadway, we could hear some noise outside on the street. Looking out, we saw it was the people of New York cheering and clapping for us, knowing we came into town to help them as best we could. People stopped on the sidewalk or stood from their front steps to clap. It was one of the most surreal things in a city supposedly as jaded as New York. You could not make this shit up.

 We were initially sent to Chelsea Piers, a sports complex in Chelsea. From there we would split up into two shifts, each doing 12 hours. We were stage at 11th Ave and West 17th St. and be sent as relief for NY EMS where needed, be it what they now called “Ground Zero” or running routine EMS calls in that section of the city. My partner for the shift was Dan Schwartz and we were either last or next to last in the line up of ambulances. This was much to my relief as I had little desire to run EMS calls in NYC of all places.

 Being parked on a street in Manhattan for the night to work begs the question: Other than an alley, where do you go to the bathroom? Well that problem was solved by a local tavern, The Red Rock West Saloon. The owner said we were welcome to come and go as we pleased, and the place would be open all night long. To a twenty something year old from a small rural town in Upstate New York, this was insane.

Also, it turned out we didn’t need to stop at McDonald’s on the way, as about once an hour someone would come through with food and beverages for any of us that wanted them. Some were from local branches of the Salvation Army or Red Cross, but many more were ordinary New Yorkers who felt they were doing their part by helping those who were helping them. They came with grocery carts filled with food. Hungry? Here you go, baked ziti. Thirsty? Here’s a cold soda. You smoke? Here’s a pack of cigarettes. This continued the entire time we were there. Flashlights, batteries, socks, whatever you needed they had it, and had it by the pallet, sent from all over the country by those wanting to help in any way they could. We had passed those pallets on the way in, and I felt bad taking the stuff, figuring there were others who needed it more, but there was obviously more than enough to go around.

Now about that bar. Kevin Backer at one point needed to hit the restroom so he and someone else, I think it may have been Russ Andrews went over to use the facilities. When they got back, Kevin was all kinds of excited, telling us what a mad house the place was. He said he saw some off duty firefighters walk in with their gear, saws strapped to their backs, throw the stuff on the floor and get a drink. We thought maybe he was stretching the truth a bit. A short time later, I too had to use the bathroom so we decided to check the place out for ourselves. Out front was that line of Harleys. The doormen, hulking bikers clad in leather looked like they would just as soon kill you as bid you hello. But say hello they did, and were quite friendly. We went inside and there was a cacophony I can still hear to this day: music mixed with the shouts of “Fuck you Osama, FUCK YOU!” as the patrons slammed beer bottles on the bar. Seems to me there was a woman on the bar as well, and the sound of breaking bottles could be heard. I managed to get a glimpse of the firefighters’ gear and a really big saw laying on the floor. I made a mental note to apologize to Kevin for doubting him. Suddenly I felt myself being grabbed and hugged by someone, jostled and slaps on the back. It took me a second before I realized it was because I was in my paramedic uniform and in New York at that time, anyone in uniform was a friend. There were thank you’s, drunken ramblings and offers of drinks, but I had to hit the head.

 I finally made it to the bathroom. While in there, a guy asked where I was from. I told him, not expecting him to know where that was. It turned out he was an off duty New York State Trooper from Buffalo and knew where I was talking about. Another mauling on the way out the door, and any pissing I had to do the rest of the night was done in an alley. God bless the people in that bar though.

The rest of the night I tried to sleep in the back of the ambulance, but there was no way that was happening. Here I was, blocks away from one of the biggest events in our nation’s history and I was on edge. I paced up and down the street, talked to anyone else who was awake, and watched the sun come up over New York City.

Myself and Russ Andrews. You can see the smoke from the wreckage behind us.

9/15/01 -That morning was pretty much more of the same, stand around and wait for something to happen. Breakfast for the group was a box of Pop Tarts I brought, and some of Marty Sullivan’s trail mix as well as anything else a stranger would walk up and give us. At one point some teenage girls came by with a grocery cart full of sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, with messages written on them in magic marker. Simple messages of “Thank You, We Love You”, and so on, but messages that to this day I haven’t forgotten. Sandwiches made with bread, peanut butter and brotherhood. I still have pictures of the sandwiches to remember them by long after the last crumb was gone.

By daylight we could walk around the area a little more, taking in our surroundings. Two things struck me that morning. The Hudson River stinks to high Heaven was first. The second was all the “Missing” posters that had been put up on every light post, every wall, faces smiling out at me with their families pleas for help finding them.

 The morning went on and as it did, I got closer to a real bed. I couldn’t wait. As noon time approached, and with it the end of my shift in sight, I began to pace a bit more, next in line to head out wherever we were needed, and still no sign of the guys for the next shift. And of course with fifteen minutes or so left to go, we were called up to go to down to the Financial District. We were given a hand held radio, directions and who from FDNY to report to. I was kinda pissed, but that’s EMS, it’s the nature of the beast.

 After passing through several armed checkpoints, we ended up in Battery Park where we met up with Jim Kintz and Henry Jerzak who had been sent in just before us. They too were trying to figure out where to go. The nice thing about getting lost was that I got to see Lower Manhattan for the first time, but the sightseeing was spoiled not only by glimpses of what was left of the World Trade Center, but also seeing the lines of people waiting to be allowed back into their homes close to the site.

 Eventually we did find the place we were supposed to go, the area near the intersection of Broadway and Liberty St. We were there to provide help in the event the damaged Deutsche Bank building collapsed. The problem was, one of the buildings they were worried about was the one we were parked across the street from.

 Someone, I think Russ, asked me at one point what I thought we would do if the building came down. My response was something like, “We’re gonna die,” and that is pretty much what would happen. Although my plan was to run like Hell down the street, and not stop until I was in the middle of Brooklyn.

 At one point, Jim Kintz gave me his cell phone and told me to call home and tell Abby I was okay. I climbed in the ambulance so I could take off my helmet and dust mask, and assured her I was in no danger… parked there in the shadow of a building which was deemed not yet structurally sound.

Yeah, that one right there. We were on the other side.

Close up of the damage. The side we were on wasn’t nearly as bad.

With that hanging over our heads literally and figuratively, we took in the level of destruction that had taken place. We were required to wear respirators so as not to breathe in the dust and smoke, and helmets in case of falling rubble from the surrounding buildings. All along Broadway storefronts were absolutely destroyed, rubble and dust everywhere, and the smell.

The smell from the wreckage of the World Trade Center is one that I can only describe as a mix of dead bodies, concrete dust, smoke, and an almost electric, ozone like smell. We stood staring at the site, the smoke rising out of the ground, like Hell had come to New York.

Henry and I took a walk down the street as far as Wall St. , discussing the devastation we were seeing. The one thing I will always remember about that discussion is Henry asking me where it all went. “One hundred stories of building twice, all those desks, computers, furniture, everything. And that’s all that’s left. Where did it all go?” The truth was, most of it had burned or been pulverized to dust, and what remained was several stories of wreckage.

The military, FBI and NYPD had deemed the site a crime scene. Because of that and the fact that they were continuously removing bodies of dead firemen, police and civilians, no photos or filming was allowed to preserve the dignity of the deceased. There was one place where you were allowed to take photos, just a few yards from where we were stationed. It was there that news teams reported to the entire world the news from New York. As macabre as it may seem, I took the opportunity to take some snapshots. This was history, and I was a part of it. I wanted to preserve it.

I got a better respirator soon after this pic was taken, thank God.

Due to the wreckage, Broadway was littered with some pretty large pot holes, craters from falling debris earlier in the week. So the city had covered them with large sheets of metal. Broadway was also the main route in and out for the military, so every time one of the transport vehicles would drive by, the front wheels would cause the metal to raise up a bit, then slam down loudly on the street as the truck rolled over it. Keeping in mind that I expected the buildings to fall any minute, every time it happened I jumped.

While I was there I helped out a couple of the guys from FDNY who needed medical attention. One was a fireman who was doing rope rescue down into the wreckage, and he was feeling shaky like his blood sugar was low. The other, and one that to this day I wonder about, was the fireman from Yonkers who was having chest pain and had high blood pressure. He has been working at the site all week, and despite my repeated attempts to let me take him to the hospital, he refused. He had “work to do” and would call his doctor as soon as he could. In fact, that was the prevailing attitude among all of them. They had a job to do, their brothers were in there and they were bringing them out dead or alive. Although now it was pretty obvious it would be dead.

Several times while we were there, all operations halted for a moment of silence as a body was brought from the rubble, a brief moment in a world gone mad out of respect for those lost. Around four o’clock, we were sent into the “hot zone” for a woman having chest pain. The “hot zone” was the fenced off area around the immediate wreckage where only FDNY, NYPD and FBI were allowed. We were escorted by an officer to a relief station where a Salvation Army worker was laying on the sidewalk in the shadow of the wreckage. A firefighter there told us the quickest hospital would be St. Vincent’s, and did we know where it was? After we explained we were from four hours away and had no clue, he not only rode with us to help me, but also had a police escort arranged to get us there quicker. 

Sometimes it’s those little things you remember, and I’ve long remembered a nurse commenting, “You can smell it on them,” referring to the smell of the wreckage, as we moved her to the hospital bed.

After that, we were pretty much done. Dan and I drove back to return the fireman, our second opportunity to get in the “hot zone”. After dropping him off, we took the time to get a real close look at the wreckage. There is no way to describe the amount of destruction, except to say that I have yet to see anything in print or on TV that captures the enormity of it. On our way out, we passed St. Paul’s chapel, one of the oldest church’s in New York City. I vividly recall the graveyard out back littered with debris in the trees and all around.

 As we passed through the gate leading back onto Broadway, we were stopped by an FBI agent and directed to pull over along the street. My mind was racing as I had no idea what we could have done wrong except for maybe having a quick look around before leaving the site. Of course my nerves were on edge anyway. As the agent came over, he smiled and told us they were cooking some “burgers and dogs” on the grill, and did we want something to eat? I laughed my ass off once I calmed down, and declined, we had to get back to our post. In hindsight, I should have taken the opportunity to have lunch with the FBI. Really, how often do you get that chance ?

 We returned to our post just down the street, and went to the Captain to give him a copy of our run sheet. While standing there, I encountered a firefighter who was taking a breather, and we got chatting about where he and I were from. He looked very weary, with that “thousand yard stare” people get when they’ve been through a traumatic experience. Tears in his eyes, he told me he lost twelve of his coworkers and closest friends in that pile of twisted broken steel. He just wanted to get them out. A pat on the back, a “take care”, and I parted ways with the firefighter from Staten Island.

 We were released shortly thereafter, and thank God. I had been awake for over twenty four hours and wanted nothing more than a hot shower and to go to bed. On our way out, the group of us in a small convoy of ambulances, we were met first by a row of refrigerated trailers parked along the street. They didn’t hold ice cream, but rather bodies and body parts, waiting for identification. We were then met once again by a large crowd of people, waiting to greet and cheer on anyone there to help and those finishing their shifts. Being the first in the line of ambulances, I got on the radio and said something like, “Guys, wait til you see this.” From the crowd a guy ran up and handed us a large bottle of Gatoraide each, and said “thank you”. The day’s events catching up with me, sleep deprived and emotionally shot, I gave him a thumbs up and croaked, “thank you.”

 We went out to dinner that evening at a place called “The Firehouse”, a firefighting themed sports bar, which seems rather appropriate. The staff were all absolutely wonderful to us. Drinks were on the house, and free t shirts for all of us. I believe the owner tried to make dinner on the house as well, but Jimmy told him we’d pay for that. Our waitress asked the usual questions, where we were from and all that and when she learned why we were in NY, she got kinda quiet. I think it was Russ who asked her if she knew someone who died in the attacks, and she just shook her head yes. Even in a city as large as New York it seemed almost everyone knew someone who died or went missing that day.

We finally made it to a really nice hotel, somewhere near the Museum of Natural History. After a hot shower, I lay down in bed, but not before taking in the sight of the NYC skyline at night with the Empire State Building lit up in red, white and blue. After only a couple hours sleep, Russ woke me up to tell me some crews were heading home, and I was on my way.

 I got to the station at about 6 o’clock on Monday morning, and found out my brother would be working my shift for me that day so I could get some sleep and try to unwind. Not all the guys were so lucky as to have the day off, and I have no idea how they managed.

 I arrived home a while later, more tired than I had ever been in my life. Abby was awake, almost as if she had been waiting for me to arrive. I can’t tell you what I must have looked like walking in the door, she would have to do that. It couldn’t have been good. But it was over, at least for me, and sleep was a welcome friend that came as soon as I lay down.

 I was not there when the buildings came down. I do not know anyone who died in the attacks. However, I’m sure playing even a small part in such a tragic event in our country’s history, seeing it up close, left a scar.

 However some good came out of it as well. For a short time our country came together as one. People did what they could to help, from wax paper wrapped sandwiches to dying while overseas hunting down those responsible.

People can be really good, when they want to be.

Twenty years later, I still have an old, dried rose, given by a stranger in New York, to remind me of that.

10 comments / Add your comment below

  1. Wow Chris! This totally blew me away. I could feel every bit of your emotions and memories as I read it. It is a brilliant coverage of your experience. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. It’s great to read of your first-hand experience. It’s as though you volunteers should be credited as us veterans are and thank you for your service. I can’t imagine the horrific view of actually seeing the site where our homeland was attacked and I’m sure it left a scar.

  3. I’m glad you shared this! And I’m glad you cared! It’s a reminder that there are good people in this world. You’re a good man.

  4. Wow. It’s still emotional to read about those days. Knowing you and Abby makes it more so. My brother and his 2 sons are Marines and I remember also knowing that they were going to war. Scary time but it was wonderful how the country pulled together. That event caused Denny and I to decide to move to Elmira to be closer to his family. I’m thankful for the 13 years that we spent there raising our family.
    Thank you for your service also.

  5. Chris I am so sorry you had to experience this! But a big thank you for you and the crew from Elmira that went to help.. your story shows a nation and a city that came together as one! If all could remember those days and come back to being one nation under God, what a better place we would live. Helping and loving on others! Thank you for all that worked so hard to try to save others! Your a good man Chris along with the all that where there to help!

  6. Chris, your writeup was very poignant, real, and touching. Thank you for going with your local crew to the City to help. I’m sure you carry scars from what you witnessed, but you also shared how well we came together as a nation. My memories are intertwined with recovering from back surgery for a large painful cyst on anterior spine compressing nerves. One of Ed’s doctors, touched by all he’s been able to do despite his blindness, gave us a great book, “Thunder Dog” by Michael Hingson. Also blind, Hingson trusted his guide dog to help him exit Tower One, keeping him and others around them calm on their way down from the 78th floor, my mind’s eye still picturing his description of firemen going the opposite direction – up into the chaos. Your presence and assistance to those in need may have been a small part in the overall scene, but you each gave vital care to those in need, never to be forgotten. Thank you for serving on that crew!

  7. Chris, I just learned of this writing at last evening’s get together (not being a face book person!) With the help of a computer/cell phone savvy young person, Russ was able to send it to me. Congratulations on a well written, easy to read story that I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Nice Job !
    Dave

    1. Thanks Dave! Like I said, it was never intended for publication, just a way to help me remember things as they happened and tell our kids, their kids, etc. Sharing it wasn’t easy, and I’m overwhelmed at the response.

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