Thursday, Jul 29, 2021

Memories of 9/11 An Interview with Rabbi Shraga Greenbaum, Paramedic with Hatzoloh of Rockland County

Thinking this attack was probably similar – an experience that EMS personnel rarely get to be involved in, and a large newsworthy incident with few and minor injuries – I decided to go and offer my services. So I called a friend and Hatzoloh member, asking if he wanted to respond with me.

“Nah. My boss would never agree,” he said, and we both chuckled.

We still had no idea of the scope of the tragedy. At the time, the media was just reporting a “small fire.”

Anyway, I rode to the Hatzoloh garage, grabbed a shirt with the Hatzoloh badge, and met a group of same-minded Hatzoloh members. In the end, four paramedics and three EMTs rushed onto an ambulance and, before the doors had a chance to close, we started moving, a total of seven first-responders. (Another two ambulances went later on, but they were stopped somewhere in the middle of Manhattan and were not allowed to enter the zone of Ground Zero.)

One member of our group, who’d been at the scene of a plane crash near LaGuardia Airport, shared his experiences and knowledge of what to expect at an MCI (Mass Casualty Incident) as a first-responder. Little did we know that the world never did experience an MCI and chaos of the sort that we were rushing to.

As we rode toward Manhattan, the atmosphere on the ambulance was still pleasant and relaxed. We obviously had no idea what was waiting for us. It was still early in the morning, and news reports about what happened were sketchy.

Suddenly, as we approached the Holland Tunnel, we had our first glimpse of the Twin Towers, engulfed in flames. We froze. It was such a terrifying, surreal scene. The mighty Twin Towers, burning, a pillar of smoke and fire? “How is that possible?” we wondered out loud, watching the world crumble to dust before our eyes.

The traffic was stopped before the toll plaza and backed up for miles. The police were in a frenzy and made the “drivers” move their stopped cars, creating a path for our ambulance and other emergency vehicles to get through. Once beyond the toll plaza and in the tunnel, it was eerily still and quiet, totally absent of any traffic

Could there be people trapped inside? There had to be victims. We just had no inkling how many human sacrifices this tragedy claimed.

But it only got worse. A moment before we entered the tunnel, precisely at 9:59 a.m., the first of the towers crumbled like a deck of cards before our eyes.

We were stunned, speechless, consumed by a pachad, “shock and awe” that I still feel in my bones ten years later.

By the time we came out of the tunnel and made our way into lower Manhattan, thousands of desperate people were thronging the streets, frantically clawing their way out of danger. Although the majority escaped south and east of the towers, many where headed in our direction uptown, north of the towers. No police, fire fighters or other EMS first-responders, no one at all, was there to direct us. So we turned left downtown and headed toward Ground Zero. It was a remarkably and unusually clear day, and the mayhem was vividly burned into my memory.

We were only a few blocks away when we were engulfed in a halo of smoke and fire, terrified shouts and falling debris, cloaking the streets of Manhattan in shards of glass and metal. Our screams choked, then died in our throats.

We stopped when we could go no further, and immediately we were beseeched by survivors running from the destruction who needed medical attention. It was then that I saw a sight that made my blood run cold. Set against the crystal clear sky, I clearly saw human figures hurtling to the ground – people who had chosen to jump instead of burning to death, falling, falling, what seemed like forever in slow motion, from the heights to the pavement below.

They say it takes nearly three minutes for a body to fall from such heights. Can you imagine the agony they endured during those three minutes?

My first patient was a Port Authority police officer, who had miraculously survived the carnage and was experiencing chest pains. We were in the middle of treating the officer and several others suffering from smoke inhalation and other ailments when, with a magnificent angry roar, the North Tower collapsed in a huge black cloud. It was 10:28 a.m.

Immediately, we were engulfed by blinding smoke and raining shards of glass and debris. We turned around – abandoning our equipment – and literally ran for our lives. We ran and ran until we were clear of the debris and cloud of smoke and ash. We had run about ten blocks. We found shelter under a pedestrian bridge that connects two buildings of Manhattan Community College. Soon, the Fire Department and EMS set up a command post there.

When the air cleared, we moved back, close to Ground Zero, to treat survivors. A mobile medical center arrived, and a lieutenant assigned a few of the Hatzoloh members to examine and treat patients. Frustration set in as we – positioned north of Ground Zero – waited and waited to help the injured, but no one came. There were no more survivors who were ambulatory and able to find their way to our “medical center.” We would have to go find them!

The plaza at Foley Square in front of the federal courthouse was turned into an EMS staging area. Teams of personnel from all over the metro area were staged, assigned team numbers, and were ready for a rapid response into the burning rubble to tend to the injured and hurt. Our group, which boruch Hashem all stayed intact, was numbered 00 and given the distinction of being the first ambulance group to respond if a victim would be found.

We were sent in to the rubble. We boarded a NYC Hatzoloh ambulance that had its mirrors broken off and the back windows blasted out from the force of the destruction. Once on board, we were directed down a narrow street with cars parked on both sides, rushing into the debris field. Suddenly, the driver came to a short stop as a large fire truck was heading straight for us, sirens blaring in panic as it rushed away from an open gas main that was about to explode.

Hurriedly, our driver, with no room or time to turn around, backed down the narrow blocks of downtown Manhattan – in reverse – as fast as humanly possible.

For two hours, another member of Monsey Hatzoloh and I were considered missing, as the Hatzoloh dispatchers took repeated roll calls to assure the safety of all responding members. We were not reachable by radio. All cell phone service was down as well, and we were incommunicado, missing in action. Boruch Hashem, it was only a radio glitch and we knew exactly where we were the whole time. But imagine the fright of our fellow members when they couldn’t locate us!

I was assigned to be the liaison between Hatzoloh, the Fire Department, and an EMS Division regarding a field hospital that was going to be set up in a park behind Battery Park City. I remember walking the streets towards the open field, feeling the very tangible stillness.

There were no birds, squirrels, cats or dogs. Nature was utterly silent. There was just a lonely piece of paper that not long ago was sitting on someone’s office desk, unnervingly and spookily drifting in the air, landing at my feet. Looking down, I was walking through three inches of ash of what were once the tallest buildings in New York.

I can still feel the hollowness in the pit of my stomach. It felt like I was walking through the destruction of a nuclear bomb. All life had stopped and there was just utter destruction around me. Once at the field, a rescue helicopter was sitting like an abandoned baby bird, lonely, waiting to be fed by its mother who never came back. Docked alongside the park was a Coast Guard boat unloading bottled water and necessary supplies, while hospital staff and emergency workers were frenziedly pitching tents and setting up mobile emergency rooms and a makeshift hospital. Hope was still in the air – hope that there would be many survivors. But they never came.

Later in the afternoon, towards evening, Monsey Hatzoloh members regrouped.

I can’t explain how or why it happened, but as all the ambulances were lined up, Monsey Hatzoloh was the first ambulance in the line. At about 9 p.m. that night, we were summoned to a patient suffering chest pain and a probable heart attack. We treated and transported one of the highest-ranking officers in the FDNY to the hospital.

We spent what seemed like an endless day in the midst of the carnage, trying to make sense of the unspeakable horror we’d witnessed. It was a powerful wake-up call, just days before the Yom Hadin, to jolt us out of our complacency. 

In fact, it’s been ten years now since that awe-inspiring day, and most of us still carry the memories in our hearts.

 

TEASERS

We were stunned, speechless, consumed by a pachad, “shock and awe” that I still feel in my bones ten years later.

 

Could there be people trapped inside? There had to be victims. We just had no inkling how many human sacrifices this tragedy claimed.

 

Set against the crystal clear sky, I clearly saw human figures hurtling to the ground – people who had chosen to jump instead of burning to death, falling, falling, what seemed like forever in slow motion, from the heights to the pavement below.

 

All life had stopped and there was just utter destruction around me.

 

We spent what seemed like an endless day in the midst of the carnage, trying to make sense of the unspeakable horror we’d witnessed.

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