The title of these personal chronological recollections has been changed so many times during the course of the writing and updating. In this article’s infancy, I used the word “tragedy”. A tragedy implies that there was an accidental death. The bombing of the World Trade Center was a deliberate act by Moslem extremist whose cause seems to relate sympathetically to the Palestinian cause and their acts of terror and destruction. This is a homicide of more than 4,000 innocent lives. Recounting this narrative stirs about precious and painful memories. I write this so that when all is forgotten and I am no longer of this earth, someone may one day find this and read my testimony. I have found that this is therapeutic for me as I write this; in its own small way, it decompresses some of the depression and pain of my post-traumatic stress disorder.
9 September 01
Kelly was all excited; we were going to celebrate her fourth birthday at Susan’s house. This was more than the usual Sunday dinners at “goo-goo’s” house. She loved sis so much and was looking forward to blowing out her four candles on her chocolate birthday cake, singing happy birthday, and opening her presents. Sis bought Kelly a plastic yellow child’s lounge chair, which is the right height for Kelly to build her puzzles(sis bought her so many interactive puzzles to include the puzzles with “hidden animals”) or draw pictures on the coffee table in their living room; and light enough that Kelly can move it about without any great effort. From the start, Kelly knew this was her special day and all attention would be on her. Excitement was in the air as Kelly opened the gifts from sis; mostly clothing (Kelly’s favorite was the reddish pink Disney Princess hooded jacket) and one wooden puzzle, but still, a very special time for Kelly. Sis held Moisie during most of the evening (Moisie was not able to walk yet), so that all, including the baby, would focus on the excitement had by all.
Sis was always cognizant of what was happening in her surroundings. Kelly’s mother had brought in the video camera and her regular camera. As the photos and video of the happy event played on, there were no photos or videos of myself with my daughter. Sis knew this occurring; she being familiar with our estranged marriage. There were the excuses of the video’s electrical cord not being long enough to capture angles which included Kelly and myself together; not enough film in the camera. After much prodding by sis, Kelly’s mother reluctantly took one photo of Kelly and myself. Sis made sure that Kelly had a picture with me as we dined on the delicious chocolate cake. The wife, fully disgusted at this point, went to the kitchen. I then, without a sound, mouthed the words to sis “thank you”. Sis acknowledged it and smiled in return.
Sis had a very important meeting this week and needed to get back to the computer. By 8:30 PM, we packed up the leftovers from dinner and gifts into our truck. After the usual hugs and kisses to “yer-yer” and “goo-goo” we made the weekly U-turn on Susan’s tight street and momentarily stopped in front of their house. Raising the sun screen in the truck, we all waved and screamed “bye” to Sis as she saw us off from behind the glass of her front door… I can still see her waving farewell.
10 September 01
It is a clear Monday morning. Enroute to Cliffside Park office for morning patients. I decided to venture over Broad Avenue off of route 46 and discovered a whole Korean community. I bought the most delicious Cheese Danish. In the 11 years that I have lived in New Jersey, I had not known of this wonderful area. I must get a hold of my sister Susan and bring her out here for dinner or shopping; she loves ethnic food and cultures from around the world.
11 September 01
This Tuesday morning began as any in the last year working for Premier Orthopedics. Arrived at 33 Park Avenue by NJ Transit to see one patient with gout at 7:00 am and then depart for Chinatown for a leisurely breakfast. My next meeting would be with a Kathy Wallace, director, Dept. of Social Services, NYU Downtown Hospital (formerly Beekman) at 10:00 am. Riding the bus southbound, I noticed this plume of smoke coming from the World Trade Center. Panic gripped my heart as I saw the horror of the tower aflame and the daunting task before the firefighters/rescue personnel. My immediate thoughts were of a terrorist attack and not an act of God or misguided aircraft. If this was indeed a terrorist attack, my first suspects would be related to Palestinian terrorists, this was their MO. Somehow I could only think of the Palestinian issues of the Middle East and the relating repercussion to this country. Deep inside, I truly wished I was wrong. I tried to use my cell phone but that was a useless marvel of modern technology whenever anything interrupts it’s signal. Am I that lucky or am I unfortunate to be able to witness such a tragedy? The constant wailing of police and ambulance sirens racing past me south bound stirred my adrenaline into a frenzy. As I peered at the overpass which connects to the Brooklyn bridge, a continuous train of ambulance transports were racing to the outer boroughs with their precious cargo aboard; destined for other medical facilities and relieving some of the pressures of the besieged Lower Eastside. There were no civilian vehicles moving about. I deboarded the stopped bus (traffic jams were at all intersections) and walked very briskly toward the unknown.
A health care provider’s first thoughts were on the innocent lives at stake. I had spent a complete tour of duty as a combat medic in the US Army; years later, another completed tour of duty as a medical officer in the US Air Force; and now with 18 + years as a clinician, completed my background in medicine. Years of healthcare professions honed my concentration to my only option beckoning me. As I hastened toward the disaster, constant prayers were being said as I balanced my thoughts of what I may encounter with an earnest focus on God; asking the Almighty to grant me “Strength, Wisdom, & Courage”. (A prayer request I said every morning while serving my first tour of duty as a medic in the US Army). “Please dear Lord, comfort the family members of those who have died and injured. Also give strength, wisdom and courage to the rescuers, keep them safe in your arms as they go about this daunting task”. Within blocks of the impact, what I saw next wrenched my heart from my body; my intestinal fortitude challenged to the maximum.
Tower Two collapsed into a horizontal multidirectional mushrooming cloud. The crowd around me stopped and gasped in unison as the building “exploded” out debris; obscuring the fine details of this great structure in a descending cloud. As a lone figure, my pace hastened as I fought and waded through the sea of a panic-stricken mass running in the opposite direction away from ground zero. Both visions of the tower’s collapse and the blizzard-covered surroundings were so surreal. The crowd could not be identified as individuals; for they were all covered in a thick grayish white dust/debris. From head to the tips of their shoes, I could not tell what race nor could I tell what color clothing they had donned earlier that morning. The cars lining the streets were also not spared. Unlike a snow blizzard which covers the surface of cars, I could not determine what make or color these vehicles were to include the color of their tires and undersurface of the vehicle. My own business suit and highly polished shoes were fading as I neared the thick fog-like cloud of what was City Hall. The acrid smell/smoke filled both my nasal cavity, lungs, as well as sting my eyes. As the mass thinned the closer I got to ground zero and my physical struggles against the running/colliding bodies eased, my thoughts had its first chance to process reality of the situation…I had no resources except for a couple of “Band-Aids” which I kept in my wallet. What I witnessed was shear horror of human loss of life, limb, and property.
The media since, has on numerous occasions shown the destruction from various angles, but to witness the actual event cannot be measured by any means available to this date. What the media and anyone for that matter failed to record was the horrific roar as the tower came down. I can’t seem to forget that deafening sound. As a child, if you were to think of your own hometown “Main Street” on a sunny workday morning, people bustling to and fro in their routine of going to work; a world of comfort and normalcy. Now picture an “Arc Light strike”, a squadron of B-52 bombers flying so high in the stratosphere that one cannot hear them approach, dropping 500 pound ordinances on that peaceful setting. Without warning, your world turns in the most ghastly direction; you then walk through the aftermath after the last “bomb” explodes. “They have attacked my country; they have killed my people”. Compelled to move forward and do something, reality set in that I am helpless in that two Band-Aids could not do much good. The cloud made breathing difficult as I briefly thought of its contents. Was asbestos or other airborne hazards used during the construction? These factors convinced me to seek additional resources. Turning toward the East River, I rushed to the nearest Emergency Room, NYU Downtown Hospital which was a couple of blocks away. In this modern medical facility, my surgical skill would be used more efficiently than to be one of many rescuers digging through the rubble.
The human spirit during crisis melded personnel from all areas. As I stood at the portals of the Emergency Room’s ambulance entrance, patients were brought in by any means of transportation. Police cruisers which had crumpled trunks and roofs due to falling debris; demolished front ends as these brave guardians risked their lives and rammed their still functional vehicles through the newly formed obstructions, carrying themselves and patients out of harm’s way. Other vehicles seen transporting precious lives were pick-up trucks and even three wheeled police traffic scooters. To describe the carnage outside was like being in an urban combat situation under a fierce siege. The inside of Beekman’s emergency room was converted to a command center with impromptu computers added as the minutes passed. Everything was covered in a thin layer of white dust; partly because of the proximity of the hospital to ground zero, and the heavy amount of traffic trampling through those halls and bays of refuge and help. The staff was working at maximum capacity; recalling any physicians in the area. It was organized mass confusion, but with a purpose and moving positively forward at all times. Like many other physicians, I am not on staff nor do I have privileges at this facility. I had done my emergency room clerkship here as a student; that was 18 years ago. I went to the front desk and identified who I was and asked if I could help. They didn’t get to check my credentials, but were so grateful that I was here to lend a hand. I was told to help out in the cafeteria which had been converted into a triage area but, I was also asked to go to the fourth floor conference room which was also converted into a minor laceration room. There on the hard conference room table I set about sewing faces and extremities. It was against my training to sew up once beautiful faces with crude suture materials. As they each departed, I emphasized to each of them to seek further additional help within 24 hours and have their scars revised under the workmanship of plastic surgeons. A third year medical student was assigned to assist. How fortunate for me that she was here doing one of her clerkships. She knew where the various departments were and where I could procure equipment. Suture materials were difficult to find. The student was able to get me one set of suture instruments from the emergency room which I used over and over again by cleaning/soaking them in alcohol in between patients. My student left me after the first casualty. Alone in that large conference room, I tried as best as I could to save life and limb. There were many patients inside my treatment/conference room and lining the halls outside; on oxygen, pulmonary dilator medication, and nebulizers. Asthmatics suffered greatly as the medication slowly eased their wheezing. All the while, my thoughts were on my country and what was going on. Praying from the beginning while on the bus, I asked God to provide comfort to all, strength to the rescue workers, and mercy so that loss of life and limb may be kept to a minimum. To my dismay and delight, the flow of live patients diminished to a trickle by the afternoon. Not knowing the status of the entire picture, I assumed we were at maximum capacity and that the ambulances were being diverted from Beekman.
By the early evening, I had little to do except go out to the bombing site. One of my saddest moments in life was walking through the silent eerie corridors of the emergency room to exit. Lining the sides of the long corridor were my fellow Americans who had died; I solemnly walked past this gauntlet of innocent heroes covered in their motionless white sheets. My heart ached so much. Reaching the outer portal of the E.R., my senses recorded the environment; the white air had settled, but the smell was ever present. With nothing more than a surgical mask, I thought of what possibly may be used in the construction of the towers in the mid-sixties. Was asbestos still in use? Thoughts of chemical agents at that time did not cross my mind. Again, I turned and went to my local church in Chinatown to rest and process what little knowledge I had of the situation.
Members of the congregation were present in the street and inside those hallowed grounds. I was a bit upset at the sight of some of the high school/college students who were “glued” to the television set in the pastor’s apartment; watching the crash replayed over and over again. That was a sickening sight. Does the news media have no ethics or compassion for those who had perished? I had made a comment but that didn’t stop this group from turning off the TV. Around 8:00 pm, I told everyone present that we are going into group prayer and the TV turned off. No sooner had I uttered the word “amen”, when one of them got up and turned the television on again.
There was much relief in seeing faces of members employed in the twin towers, who had escaped the towers and it’s collapse. Everyone was accounted for except Jennifer Wong, who worked in the first Tower on the 96th floor. Phone lines were still down, but I didn’t want to call Jennifer’s parents (Ben and Joyce) because they were probably waiting by the phone for word of their daughter. I returned to Beekman three more times and inspected every bay in the emergency room as well as check on the cafeteria and fourth floor conference room. I endeavored to keep checking the emergency room of Beekman for Jennifer’s familiar face and/or name should she have facial injuries. Throughout the day, I had also tried to contact my sister Susan at Compaq (856-2735). I kept getting the same recorded message that she “will be out of the office on Tuesday September 11th and Wednesday September 12th and will be attending a conference”. Fearing that she might have been on one of the fateful flights, I had repeatedly left messages to call home or me at the church. This fear was lessened and her involvement seemed remote because the flights were destined for the west coast; she would not spend a day’s travel to go out there, not stay overnight, and then spend another day’s travel to return to the east coast. Compaq is located on 32nd street, well within safe distance of the carnage. She had not been to the world trade center in years for pleasure or business. I recall my last message to Susan. I was getting pretty angry at her for not calling us; I was so worried at that point. Dad was able to call me around 8:30 pm at the church. Susan was present at the World Trade Center, tower one, on the 106th floor for her meeting. My world disintegrated as I crumbled to the kitchen floor of the pastor’s apartment. My grief and disbelief that my country was attacked and my people killed was so strong that I even doubted the sun would rise the next day.
Church members like Kim Hung (Hungy) Lee stopped by the church that night. Coincidentally, Dorothy Ng was on Hungy’s cell phone. Her husband Fred had gotten out of the towers in time. I sobbed as I told her how Susan is not that athletic and that she cannot make it down from the 106th floor on her own speed and strength. “Don’t you give up Goldy!, don’t give up on hope!” Those words instilled some comfort and brought me back to my senses. On that dark Pike Street, I finally stopped sobbing uncontrollably. After comforting me, Hungy insisted I take his car and attempt to be home with my family during this horrendous period. Not being in any state to drive, Richard Ho, who resides in Rockland County and also stranded in NYC, drove me home. I am in debt to both these men and brothers for coming to my assistance in times of great despair. We drove to check on dad. His bedroom light was on; I can safely assume he was watching the bombing on television. His poor hearing negated my efforts of the doorbell, banging on the door, and cell phone (his phone was not functioning properly). After a few minutes, we then drove off to my home.
The wife had the television on. Only one station survived the bombing (channel 2). She was viewing the bombing over and over. My 4 year old daughter Kelly was also watching this horror played again and again. She rushed to me and said “goo-goo” is in the “broken building”. In this estranged relationship with the wife, I so much wanted to hug Kelly or Moisie (9monthes old), but the wife with her “invisible leash” (prejudiced Kelly toward me), kept Kelly a distance away from me. Standing by the entrance to the family room, I made a comment that this was not healthy for a child to see this. The wife insisted there was no danger. I asked how she (wife) was doing. In a curt voice came a one-syllable reply, “fine”. I ascended the stairs to my bedroom. After removing my soiled clothing, I carefully placed them onto one heap; fearing there may be dangerous particles of asbestos or other contaminants on them. I showered and then got into bed. I couldn’t bear to watch anymore television; it was the same played over and over. With the lights off, I curled into a fetal position; immersed in great fear, sorrow, and depression. Alone in the dark room, I prayed that the quiet of the room would quickly lead to a deep sleep; and I would wake to find that this was just a nightmare. I stayed awake and immobile in my quiet darkness for about 5 hours. The long hours of the day, the extremes of emotions, the physical stress of saving life and limb, the poor nutrition, eventually wore away my body as I slipped into a restless nap. Within a half-hour I was on the phone to Pat, my eldest sister; we will meet at dad’s right away.