9/11 Revisited

For this edition of EMS in the New Decade, I’ve asked my father, Peter Kier to share with us his experience related to the events of September 11th, 2001. My father is an 18 year EMT and has over 20 years experience as a Prehospital Provider in New Jersey.

A few days after September 11th, he was able to participate in the recovery efforts at Ground Zero. These are his thoughts and reflections on those events nine years later.

As we approach the anniversary of the World Trade Center tragedy, I can’t help but think back to the trip we took to New York on September 15th. When the attack happened, I had this compelling need to go and help. With all of the training and experience I had I was sure I could be useful. But, I also felt the need to be there, to experience first hand what I was seeing on TV night after night. Our First Aid Squad finally got a chance to participate when we became part of a convoy of 21 squads and Paramedic units assigned to help assist FDNY EMS units and other volunteer squads that were already in the city.

With a stop in Newark to get a briefing, pick up supplies and eat, we ventured into New York by way of the Holland Tunnel, which had been closed to public traffic since the attack. It was an eerie trip into the city, being the only vehicles on the normally crowded highways, almost like a Sci-Fi movie about being the last people on earth.

Once on the other side, the reception from the crowds that lined the streets was something to behold. In an article I wrote for our town paper, I likened it to being treated as a rock star. Nine years later I can still visualize the people, hear them cheering and I continue to wonder why. This was 4 days after the attack, but they were still out there, giving us food and water at every intersection. To this day I will never understand that. Maybe they had the same need as I did, to be there, to help and participate in whatever way they could.

I have never been a big city person, having grown up in a town of about 1,000 people, the size of which would be swallowed up in a place like New York. The sense of hugeness, as well as the sounds and the smells engulfed me all night as the rigs moved up in the staging area and went on their assignments. As dawn approached it was our turn and we headed down to the financial district to lend whatever support we could.

Later on various people were arguing that the term “Ground Zero” was not used, but I can guarantee you that when we finally arrived at Vesey and West Street, the first words that the officer directing traffic said to us was “Welcome to Ground Zero”. Those were chilling words and the scene before us was equally horrific.

It was difficult to really take in all that was going on around you; the warnings about leaving the scene on foot if whistles blew because a building might be coming down, getting fitted for you respirator, making sure you kept a certain amount of decorum, trying to cheer up the firemen going in and coming out of the debris pile, watching the police do their job keeping the civilians out of the area, watching the poor search and rescue dogs coming back from the pile with their tails between their legs because they couldn’t find anyone alive and getting needed rehab by finding things that their handlers would hide, seeing remains being brought to the mobile morgues, talking to fireman who came back looking for their mates who were lost in the collapse, finding on the street memos that on Tuesday had been on someone’s desk in one of the towers, feeling the dust in your lungs even though you couldn’t see it and in general keeping out of the way but wanting to climb on the debris pile and pass a bucket with everyone else. All of this in about an 8 hour span and it never stopped. I didn’t want to leave, but we had to. I can’t begin to imagine how a person could do it day after day, but so many did. And when we finally arrived home and cleaned up our rig, we found that heavy chalky dust in places that daylight never saw.

One thing that has stayed with me was the conversation I had with a young black man early on Sunday morning before we left for our assignment. We were watching black smoke coming from one of the many underground fires that would spring up and he opened up about his feelings. He said that through his life he had to endure so much prejudice and hate and yet he was able to keep his head up and not be angered by all that he had experienced. But when this attack happened he said that he was so angered by it that he didn’t know if he could keep himself on an even keel. That is why he had gotten on his bicycle and ridden from Brooklyn to this spot to try and burn off some of the hate and anger that he was feeling. To live through what he had and to feel the way he did after the attack spoke volumes to me. I think it was what most if not all people felt in those first weeks after 9/11.

Since 9/11 the flags on the overpasses have become fewer, you don’t hear as many patriotic songs as you used to and it seems like a lot of people have forgotten. It shouldn’t take and anniversary for us to remember.