9/11. I still remember it like yesterday. It was Tuesday, a beautiful fall day, and the sky was clear and blue as the ocean in New York City. Since I’ve traveled all over the world these last few years, I’ve lately come to realize many of my foreign and younger friends have no idea what actually happened and how crazy things were on the ground that fateful day.
This blog entry comes from a journal I wrote and e-mailed to my concerned friends that week, about the 48 hours living and working in NYC right after 9/11 when I was a med student at NYU. I usually try to send this out like once a year to new friends or people I just met here in the US and abroad, because I keep running into people who tell me that it seemed unreal and like a movie when they watched it back then. It amazes and saddens me that it has been almost 14 years since that fateful day. While so much has happened since, I think it’s still important to, as people say, “Never forget…”.
Before you read what is below, just be warned that it is very graphic, emotional, and isn’t for the faint of heart. But above all, it’s real…
And even though he barely uses social media anymore, I want to send my love out to my buddy Jon, who worked in the WTC and ran down 50 flights of stairs that day…out of a burning wreck of steel, fire, and hell which I hope no one I know will ever have to go through. Jon, I’m glad all of us in the world get to party with your crazy ass a lot longer.
Thanks, all you dear readers…It’s a long entry below, and I split it into two parts, so it might take you awhile to read…
Please share…and Never Forget,
The Traveling Bachelor
Sent: Thursday, September 13, 2001 10:40 PM
Subject: A chronology of the aftermath – Shell Shocked in NYC
Hello all, and thank you for the mountains of calls and e-mails I’ve received in the last 48-hours. You have no idea how much it means right now, still feeling helpless here in NYC….I wish I could e-mail you all individually, but that will take a long time for me, and there is obviously a big mess here. So what I did instead is something I felt was important to do, and I’ve written an hourly account of the last 48 hours here in NYC.
I hope you will read this and try to live through this story what I’ve been living through, the cameras can only tell half the story. Even though I’m exhausted and tired, I felt a great need to write this story and share it with you….A warning to the meek though, the account below is graphic and vivid, but above all it is the truth, and I NEED to share it with all of you, because it will never be as fresh in my mind as it is now…hope you forgive my prose/way of writing, I just tried to write from the heart. Feel free to pass it along…
I pray you are all able to live day by day….and I will talk to you all soon. My sofa is still always available to crash on, and you will all always have a home here in NYC….in fact our couch has had someone crashing on it every other day for the last two months even BEFORE this tragedy!
Write back again soon, this will probably be my last update unless something else significant happens, since this is all I really can relate about life here….watch the news for my updates. I may send one more brief info about more blood donation/missing persons information if I have the time to find it, but for now I am going to try to get a couple more hours of sleep.
Missing you more than ever,
Tuesday, September 11th
9 am-11 am
Waking up in the middle of another captivating Pediatric Grand Rounds, I was glad that I managed to catch a few zzz’s that would help me get through my 6 am to 6 pm 12-hour day…I walked out of the auditorium filled with NYU doctors, residents, and medical students, and suddenly remembered that I was also on-call tonight, meaning I would have to stay later in the hospital and pretty much have a 16 hour day. “Damn this is going to be a long/exhausting day,” I remember thinking to myself, not realizing what an understatement of the century that was.
Heading back to the hospital to check on some more of my patients, I ran into my med school classmates Josh and Eric, and Josh yelled to me that an airplane had just crashed into the Twin Towers. Swearing in disbelief, I ran outside the hospital on 30th Street and First Avenue to see for myself. Not wanting to believe, I looked south, and saw a huge plume of dark, black smoke rising from the Financial District. My stomach flipped and my heart stopped, and instantly I grabbed my cell phone to call my friend Jon, who works on the 42nd Floor of one of the Twin Towers…there was no service, in what was to be the first of a huge communications blackout
I ran up to my apartment across the street, where my roommates Rick, Dan, and my visiting brother Stan told me the second plane had hit…Not knowing what to do, we turn on the television and try to make more calls, still with no luck. Chaos was everywhere in the streets, and as I headed back out to the 9th floor of Tisch Hospital, my roommates and brother ran outside to see everything for themselves.
Back at the hospital, the residents and attending told all the students that we didn’t need to stay, and we should go out to see if there is anything that we could do as medical students, or as volunteers….
11 am-2 pm
The next hours were a blur, as I ran back to the apartment to watch more TV updates in my empty apartment. Eventually, I realized I was alone, my brother was nowhere to be found and my roommates where already dressing in scrubs and joining other NYU Medical students. A bunch of us took off for the Bellevue Hospital ER, a Level 1 Trauma Center just 4 blocks south of Tisch Hospital and on the way some students told me that the two Twin Towers had completely crumbled. The news never hit until hours later…
At the Bellevue ER where there was a controlled chaos going on, literally hundreds of doctors, nurses, med students, and volunteers poured through the doors and got dressed in surgical scrubs and gloves. Eventually the reality sank in that there were about 150+ medical professional in the ER and not a single patient. A stressed-out ER attending who is tripping over all the well-intentioned but space-filling volunteers yells to all non-essential personnel to leave or get out of the way, and some medical students including myself are rounded up for other emergency tasks. Five of us headed out to the front of Bellevue, where we establish a makeshift triage-crowd control-patient care group. Some of us escorted the patients who were showing up for actual appointments, others joined the cops in keeping the hordes of people who were pouring into the hospital trying to find out news about loved one, and others helped the literally thousands of blood donors get in an orderly line and begin the process for blood donation.
By the time noon hit, the word got out that the hospital only wanted O+ and O- blood because there were too many people in line. With the situation stabilized and the hospital emergency network more established, some of us medical students ran back to Tisch Hospital in the hopes of being more useful…the terror and fear is finally starting to hit all of us, and I began to feel like I was in a war zone. I tried again on my cell phone to reach my friend Jon in the World Trade Center and got his answering machine. In despair, I yelled a quick prayer of hope into the phone, begging Jon to call me back and praying that he was safe and got out before the collapse. Then when I arrived back home to change into hospital scrubs for the certain emergency ahead, I had a sheer moment of panic, realizing I still didn’t know where my brother Stan was. “Where the hell is he….please God tell me he didn’t go down to look at the World Trade Center,” I prayed as I ran out the door to join the medical students assembling outside the medical center
2 pm – 8 pm
We found out an emergency triage/holding area had been set up at Chelsea Piers on the West Side of town, but sketchy reports about whether they actually needed volunteers and whether a security shuttle would pick us up to bring us over there came in. Some medical students became frustrated at the inability to actually help out, some decided not to wait for the the shuttle and set out on foot across the city, and others like myself stood there helpless, staring at the growing black cloud of death that grew higher and higher above Manhattan. All the medical students shared their fears, their dreams, their frustrations at being completely useless right now, and slowly (almost as if a movie set was being assembled around us) a setting of near martial law developed around us. Ambulances screamed up and down the street, cop cars were everywhere. A fire truck flew down the wrong way of a one-way street as people were crying and hugging on the street. A nearby radio blared that the only way to currently leave the city was on the Outbound George Washington Bridge, and I quickly began to realize that we are all living in a state of military lockdown.
As I was feeling most helpless, my brother finally appeared out of nowhere. Stunned, I hugged him as he told me that he had been walking southward towards the World Trade Center to get a better view of the disaster. My brother told me how he watched in horror as he had a close-up view of the last remaining Twin Tower becoming a 110-story twisted metal fireball bending to gravity and killing thousands of people. He told me how he ran away in fear with a mob of New Yorkers beside him as the dust cloud from the impact grew larger and larger, and how as he got far enough away he got into an argument with a hysterical New Yorker who immediately wanted to go and bomb every Arab country.
Speechless, I hugged him again and tried to decide whether I was angry at him or so thankful to God that he was safe….I quickly decided on the latter, realizing that thousands of people across the city would never get that luxury of knowing their loved ones were safe. And so my brother and I went home, with the phones finally working, and stayed transfixed to the TV as the scenes of death unfolded over and over again. My inbox began filling up, my answering machine filled with messages from worried friends. We finally got in touch with our family and were lucky enough to be able to call a few select friends on our unreliable land line. AOL Instant Messenging became the saving emergency communication method for the time being
Just before I headed back to the hospital to see my last patients, even though the Pediatrics Residents/Attendings told me I didn’t need to be there, I got an AOL message from my friend Katie:
“Albert, Jon’s okay…they are all okay, they are staying uptown right now with friends.”
Quietly thanking God (since I was too tired to do anything else), I headed back to Bellevue Hospital, even though the city was already filled with emergency heroes and I didn’t need to be another one…..I knew that half the firefighters who walked into that burning mess would never come home, and it nauseated me to my soul knowing that their bodies were definitely obliterated beyond belief. It was easy to be thankful for the smallest things after knowing the unbelieveable horror others were going through. My brother was alive, my parents were alive, and my friend who had been closer to hell than I will ever be managed to get out of a monstrous steel death trap after a plane had crashed just meters above his head….I allowed myself to be content for a few minutes.
Then, I quickly crossed First Avenue going back to Bellevue Hospital, where I helped out briefly supplying blood bags and helping phlebotomists deal with the overwhelming crush of donors who were desparately trying to do what little good they could during a time where everything seemed meaningless. Hundreds of people were still in line when I left, and I was overwhelmed by this sea of human courage I was seeing right before me. After helping out in Bellevue, I headed back four blocks north to Tisch Hospital to at least say hi to my pediatric patients for the day. As I used my stethoscope to listen to the heart of one sick girl with a high fever, I glance over to the TV and was horrified to see clips of person after person falling stories to their death, screaming in shock, and the wave of helplessness hit me again. Finally, I said goodbye to my patients and my pediatrics team at sign-out session, and as I left Tisch Hospital I immediately headed north to the safe house where my friend Jon was staying after escaping from the World Trade Center. With the great black cloud of carnage hanging high in the sky to the south, and sirens blaring everywhere I turned, I was glad that I could finally be of some use, however minor, to at least the stable pediatric patients in the hospital.
8 pm – 12 pm
Leaving the hospital, the entire city looked like a ghost town. Besides the occasional police barrier and occasional speeding set of police cars, the streets of NYC, or at least First Avenue, were deserted. It was impossible to catch a cab or bus, since the streets were pretty much deserted, and I ended up walking 30 blocks north on foot. Passing the United Nations, I again began to feel like I was in a war zone as police barriers and the Men in Blue of NY walked by on patrol. I again gave a silent thanks that my parents had not come to the city today, since they had been planning to come to the UN to rally for Taiwan’s right to have representation in the UN. Arriving at my friend’s house, I finally meet up with my friend Jon and one of his other displaced roommates. Normally one of the most social, outgoing, kind-hearted and friendly guys I’ve ever met, Jon was pretty much withdrawn and pensive. I had never seen him so somber, his eyes were glassed over, like he had seen Death itself, and he almost seemed to be seeing his life flash before his eyes in a continuous loop. We all joked around a little bit about how Jon and his buddies probably would not be renewing their lease for their amazing penthouse on Greenwich St, which had been the location of many memorable parties. However, it also happened to be one block away from the World Trade Center, and seeing as how their home was now covered in a layer of soot, ash, and God knows what else, it was definitely not fit to live in. From all descriptions, it sounded like their apartment looked similar to what something would look like if it had been next to a erupting volcano.
Jon and his friend were drinking shots, and I didn’t blame him…I was almost tempted to drink one or two myself but remembered that I would be in the hospital in a matter of hours and thought better of it. Jon and my other buddies gave me the good news that all our friends were safe, and that everyone had been accounted for. With my spirits lifted a little higher, I said a somber goodbye and hopped a free bus down 2nd Avenue to go back home (all buses and pay phones were free on Tuesday to help people deal with the emergency).
I arrived exhausted at my apartment around midnight, but still watched in tired shock as more scenes of heroism and tragedy were broadcast on CBS. My other roommate Rick came in from his own personal journey, and sat down with me at the TV. We realized that our third roommate Dan was still out there in the city helping out as a volunteer in some emergency area somewhere. As I was about to pass out for a paltry amount of sleep, I learned something gruesome on the news: The general identification morgue for all the bodies, body parts, and crushed remains was being set up right outside my front door, across the street at the Chief Medical Examiner’s office (who was also located across the street at Tisch Hospital/NYU Medical Center). Looking out my window I saw a number of large refridgerated trucks rumble by and realized that they were hauling hundreds of bits and pieces of NYC human flesh and organs towards the morgue. I hit the bed, and instantly fell asleep, glad to be able to escape out of the nightmare of September 11th, if even for a few hours. With my last waking thoughts, I prayed that the trucks cooling systems would work, and that the stench of death and decaying body parts would not overwhelm me when I woke up in less than four hours.
(To Be Continued in Aftermath of a National Tragedy: A Personal Journal from 9/11 (Part 2) )