horror Anthony Vine '85, New
York City surgeon, remembers September 11, 2001
"Let us go then, you and I . . . "
"The horror, the horror"' Mr. Kurtz exclaims during
his familiar epiphany.
I am a surgeon, skilled in trauma and critical care, but as the
horror of the World Trade Center catastrophe unfolded, I felt stranded
and helpless in our safe haven of the hospital, prepared for the
worst of disasters.
My trek began at 9:30 that night after I had returned home frustrated.
Only a few minor injury victims had presented to our ER. Between
the harrowing repetitions of the newsreels, there appeared in small
print on the TV screen: "Doctors go to the Chelsea Piers staging
area." I telephoned my close friend and fellow surgeon-who
had just been married one week ago-and we set out in her car. From
the Upper East Side, we attempted to travel west through Central
Park, until we reached the first of many police barricades. No problem.
A single flash of a "Police Surgeon" PBA card was enough.
All the way down the West Side Highway to 23'd street the NYPD waved
We entered the large gym-now-trauma-center, and were directed
by the triage staff to the first two of some 55 makeshift stretchers,
where we met a myriad of similarly helpless-feeling healthcare providers
who desired to make a difference. After spending an hour there,
treating only one patient who had sustained smoke inhalation injuries,
I discovered that several other surgeons and anesthesiologists were
hitching a ride down to the front-line triage area at the epicenter
of destruction, One Liberty Plaza. We had heard reports that there
might be chest, abdominal, and extremity trauma, that we might help
to extricate the living from the rubble. This news or rather,
rumor seemed encouraging. So the seven of us three
surgeons, one anesthesiologist, and two fearless medical students
piled into an ambulance replete with life-saving supplies:
chest tubes for pneumothoraces; saws and scissors for potential
amputations during extrication; IV catheters stuffed in our scrub
The mere odor of soot in this van that already had performed multiple
trips downtown was both sobering and ominous, as each person's countenance
revealed. We all had treated countless serious bum victims in our
training, but this was not some "one alarm" tire.
As we approached "ground zero," there was the usual
chit-chat and gallows humor for which doctors especially
surgeons are infamous, since so often we must distract ourselves
from bitter realities, lest unbridled emotion cloud our thought
processes and meticulous technique. The anesthesiologist said he
was worried that his new job next year in Upstate New York would
be in jeopardy if someone discovered that he had forgotten to sign
out the specific quantity of morphine for his drug bag. Sympathetically,
I told him I was sure that there would be plenty of jobs upstate
At that moment, as we peered out the window and saw the billowing
clouds of smoke and flying debris along with the multitude of personnel
in masks, the conversation turned serious. Had the World Trade Center
been constructed with asbestos? Had the hijackers carried on board
the aircraft anthrax or other chemical/bacteriologic weapons?
The ambulance could go no farther: The random plies of debris
and the plethora of tire trucks had created insurmountable blockades
for most vehicles.
As we exited the van, we hardly could believe what we saw as our
escort guided us closer to the heart of the action. The double high-filtration
mask was suffocating, but breathing seemed easier when I thought
of the thousands who already had suffocated to death. Police and
civilian cars some heaped on top of one another had
been reduced to scrap metal: bare axles, contorted hoods and door
frames, glassless remnants of carcasses.
After only a few minutes of trudging through the deep ash and
mud, my old tennis shoes were filthy and soggy; my curly brown hair,
so laden with ashes and dust that my friend said I looked 40 years
older. I certainly felt that way. Suddenly on my left appeared the
Chambers Street subway station entrance, but the adjacent sidewalk
was in no condition for us to progress: the only way in was to shimmy
sideways along the iron fence above the sidewalk, not unlike an
army obstacle course. Finally, we found a route on the ground over
fallen aluminum and steel beams, and we forged ahead.
Then I saw it first from the comer of my right eye and
subsequently with a full frontal view. What once had towered over
a hundred stories into the heavens had been reduced to a 60-foot
mound of twisted metal and jagged concrete pieces.
Dazed, I walked on until I saw One Liberty Plaza, with the dust-laden,
haunting acronym NASDAQ on the steps ascending to the rotating door
entrance: We had arrived. Gazing upon the ruins, thinking about
the laws of physics, I realized that for any mortal to survive would
be nothing less that a miracle. That was my first depressing thought,
after which ensued blood-curdling, hypertension-inducing rage. What
evil monster could have perpetrated such a nefarious deed?
In time, we became one with our surroundings enveloped
by the whirlwind of ashes, the noise, debris, and mayhem. There
were a few injured personnel with minor trauma and smoke inhalation,
but as the night progressed, our worst fears became apparent. My
surgical skills would be of no use: I desperately longed for a single
victim to treat, and then perhaps one more, and then another. But
our tour of duty concluded without that satisfaction, and tightly
strapped to the jump-seat of the FDNY Command vehicle a maneuverable
modified golf cart I departed the scene.
As ground zero began to vanish behind us and the massive clouds
of dust dissipated, I finally could see "the evening spread
out against the sky," and we sped along the half empty streets
of NYC. Never have I encountered a New York so deserted, populated
only by scattered groups of NYPD, FDNY, and news crews. The tears
on my crusted cheeks were painful sequelae of both ash and sorrow.
We approached the Chelsea Piers parking lot, and I thanked the
fire captain for his help, although so many words and thoughts passed
through our minds unspoken, unspeakable.
Is this what Pompeii and Herculaneum looked like in 79 A.D.?
Is this a microcosm of the nuclear ablation of Hiroshima or Nagasaki?
Is this what Pearl Harbor felt like?
While these analogies seem fitting, I cannot answer such questions,
since I am familiar with these disasters only vicariously..
As dawn ensued, my first elective surgery of the day, a laparoscopic
hernia repair, was almost ready to start a simple job of
repairing a common defect in the human body. Yet, emblazoned on
my mind remained the images of utter destruction and chaos. Forced
to suppress these negative thoughts, I tended to my patient's needs
and concerns. Surely it was better that he not know where I had
been all night, what I had seen, felt. Focus. Concentrate.
Just as she had done for Orpheus, for Dante, for T.S. Eliot, my
muse reveals my epiphany: that I have been to hell and back and
have envisioned the wasteland; that I have been privileged to observe
and to assist, to experience for myself the shock, the anger, and
the despair; and that I must sing my tale to induce catharsis. Even
if I close my eyes now, I still can detect the faint odor of soot.
The memory lingers: I will never forget. The horror.