Note: As we approach the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, WebMD’s In the Spotlight blog will feature different perspectives on the tragedy and its lasting impact. Here, WebMD Medical Editor Louise Chang, MD, recalls working in a New York hospital near Ground Zero when the 9-11 attacks occurred.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was in my office at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan’s West Village. I was a chief resident there at the time.
We got a call in our office that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. When I answered the call, I remember thinking at first that it had to be another drill. But it wasn’t.
St. Vincent’s hospital was the nearest level-one trauma center to the World Trade Center, so the ambulances were coming to us first. I went with another chief resident to the ER to assess readiness for what we expected to be an onslaught of patients. I remembered thinking that we were prepared.
The chiefs and department leaders split up duties. I took on the initial job of freeing up as many beds in the hospital as possible. This meant going from floor to floor, assessing patients and working with the doctors to see which patients were OK enough to be discharged, so that hospital beds would be available for WTC victims.
Trying to Focus
I was so busy that I didn’t have time to get all the news about what had actually happened. I was considering it a plane accident and preparing as we had been trained to prepare the hospital for patients coming in.
Then the second plane hit. TVs were on in patients’ rooms, and as I went from room to room talking to patients and assessing them for expedited discharge, I caught snippets of information: terrorist attack, more planes.
I remember thinking, Would other planes be crashing in the city? How many?
I quickly blocked those thoughts and focused on my job. My coworkers and I were following our crisis protocol and everyone was ready.
I worked my way down from floor to floor, taking the stairs. Next to the stairwell door, on every floor, was a large window with a clear view of the World Trade Center.
My first view was a charred and ragged black hole and thick smoke coming out of it. I remember making an effort not to look out the windows. It was too upsetting.
The patients’ rooms also had clear views. At some point, I heard a patient scream. I looked up and one of the towers was gone.
Patients and their visitors were traumatized and panicked with what was happening before their eyes. Many were tearful and in disbelief. Some reported chest pain and problems breathing. Many patients were worried about the safety of the hospital and other parts of the city. Phones were not working well at the time, so it was difficult for people to check in on family or friends.
I found myself reassuring patients as best I could in the few minutes I had, holding hands and giving hugs. I didn’t look out any of those upper hospital windows again for several days.
Waiting for Patients Who Never Came
I believe EMS crews brought a few hundred people rescued from the WTC site or surrounding area to St. Vincent’s — far fewer than what we’d prepared for. Some of the hospital staff went to Ground Zero in organized groups. We saw patients with severe burns, respiratory problems, trauma from falling debris or glass, chest pain.
In the days that followed, many of those who came to the hospital for treatment were rescuers, paramedics, fire fighters, police, emergency workers. Even search dogs covered in dust and soot were brought to the ER for some rest and showers.
Most of the hospital staff, including myself, lived a couple of blocks from hospital within an area blocked off by the city in the wake of the attacks. Walking to and from the hospital, taking the normally bustling 6th or 7th Avenues, was like walking in a dead zone.
I will never forget the burning smell of the air, the fighter jets over the city patrolling the skies, and the big trucks that rumbled back and forth on 6th and 7th Aves, loaded with debris. My third-floor apartment faced 6th Ave., so the only traffic I would see and hear for some time was from those trucks.
Acts of Kindness
Most importantly, I remember the kindness of countless people in the West Village and beyond. People from all walks of life came together to support us and each other.
I remember being in the emergency room late on the first night when a young man came into the ER with a large cardboard box, passing out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to everyone.
Long lines of people waiting patiently to donate blood wrapped around the block. Physicians and nurses from outside the city and those who had been visiting as tourists from other countries called our office to volunteer their services.
The James Beard Foundation and local restaurants provided food and drinks for medical and emergency staff. Homeless people helped along side celebrities serving food outside the hospital.
Remembrance, Hope, and Faith
At the back of the hospital, near the ER, there was a portico where people posted hundreds of flyers with pictures and descriptions of missing family and friends. Those pictures showed smiling, happy faces — a stark contrast to the situation we were living through.
It helped to be able to make and post flyers. I also added some to the wall. It became a makeshift Wall of Hope and Remembrance.
Practicing medicine at St. Vincent’s, I had become accustomed to issues of life and death, poverty and excess, pain and recovery of acute illness, and the struggle of chronic disease.
But the events of September 11 forced me to realize the extremes of how horrible and precious life can be. I was pregnant at the time, and on Sept. 11, I felt despair and worry about bringing my baby into such a world.
But as I saw all of us come together and heal as the days passed, my hope and faith for a better world for my son was restored.
Over the years, I’ve shared only pieces of my 9-11 experience with my son, but he understands the impact it has had on me and others. It has grounded me and helped me appreciate family and happiness all the more.