Recollections of 9/11—Medical Officers of the New York City Fire Department
These personal recollections describe the conditions faced by persons responding to the World Trade Center attacks and the circumstances of the injuries and illnesses among New York City Fire Department (FDNY) rescue workers. These remarks were recorded in August 2002.
Drs. Kerry Kelly and David Prezant are the Chief and Deputy Chief Medical Officers, respectively, of FDNY. Approaching from different directions, they arrived on the scene shortly after the second plane hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center (WTC).
Dr. Kelly: As I made my way toward the nearest firehouse (Ladder 10/Engine 10 on Liberty Street) in lower Manhattan, I saw people and debris raining from the towers. A group of FDNY firefighters called for me to help a firefighter who had just been hit by a civilian falling from the tower. The injury appeared fatal. We attempted to resuscitate him and then placed him in a nearby ambulance. A captain then escorted me across West Street towards the command center.
Dr. Prezant: Every street had been closed off by police, only allowing entry to a steady stream of ambulances, fire trucks, and emergency vehicles. The chief-in-charge directed me to set up an EMS medical triage area directly in front of the South Tower. I was joined there by about 20 EMS workers.
Dr. Kelly: All of a sudden, the captain shouted, "Hurry up, the South Tower is falling!" We ran across the street, and he pushed me against a building, covering my body with his. The sound was deafening as debris pounded down. It was hard to breathe. The air was thick and choking. Then there was silence. It looked as though black snow had fallen, covering everything. Everyone was covered with gray powder; their features were indistinguishable.
Dr. Prezant: As the EMS workers and I began to set up a mini-triage area in the middle of West Street, there was a soft rumbling that sounded like a freight train. Everyone started to run across the street away from the tower. I had nearly reached the cover of a pedestrian bridge when I was blown off my feet and completely buried under debris. I knew I was going to die but it seemed to be taking forever. I pushed myself up to my knees and tried to maintain a position that could trap enough air to breathe. Several sheets of construction materials covered me and I was able to wedge myself out. I was surprised that I could stand up. It was as dark as a tunnel and the air was as thick as soup. Despite repeatedly scooping chunks of dust and debris from my mouth and nostrils, I inhaled and swallowed large quantities. I heard screams to my left and I began to walk toward them and met several firefighters. Together, we helped several civilians out of the debris. After walking one or two blocks, the sky lightened to a grayish color, and it became obvious that I had been trapped in a massive dust cloud. We were coughing continuously, and it was hard to see. I do not remember hearing the second tower collapse.
Dr. Kelly: Other FDNY rescue workers and I found two injured firefighters and brought them into a nearby parking garage. While we were looking for medical supplies, the second tower collapsed. A firefighter pushed me into a revolving door as the debris swooshed down the street. The gray turned to black once again. Afterwards we carried the two firefighters to an ambulance and later helped transfer them to a police transport boat. I walked south to the tip of Manhattan—the Battery.
Dr. Prezant: I saw Dr. Kelly for the first time. We grouped up with some other firefighters and headed back toward the collapse zone. We were then directed to a new staging area on Broadway and Vesey, several blocks from the collapse site. Together with physicians and nurses from FDNY, we opened a triage center in a pharmacy. Additional supplies came from local hospitals. Medical personnel responding to the WTC attacks were directed to this triage area.
Dr. Kelly: We started to hear rumors that WTC Tower 7 was going to collapse, and we all felt our triage area was too close for comfort and moved it across the street to Pace University. This location gave us greater space for anticipated trauma and eye/respiratory treatments. Unfortunately, the extra space was not needed, because many firefighters had died, and those left alive had been transported to hospitals or were hurriedly working at the site to rescue others. As the day wore on, most visits to the triage center were for eye/ respiratory irritation requiring eyewashes and/or bronchodilators. The triage center was closed around 9:00 p.m. and we headed back to FDNY headquarters.
Dr. Prezant: We finally got back to headquarters. It took an hour to wash off the dust, which by now had become like a layer of concrete. I sat down to call my wife and tell her I was still alive. The phone line was difficult to hear through, and I thought she said that the TV showed pictures of both towers fully collapsed. I couldn't believe what she had said. Amazing—I had nearly been killed, and then worked there all day and I never knew or imagined that the entire WTC had collapsed.
Drs. Kelly and Prezant: Over the next days and weeks, there has been little time to grieve. Together with our staff at the Bureau of Health Services, FDNY members, retirees, and others, we have tried to meet the physical and mental health care needs of FDNY rescue workers. Each day we are thankful for being alive.
David Prezant, M.D. Kerry Kelly, M.D.