(from SEIU/1199 News October 2001, online version: http://www.1199seiu.org/articles/article.cfm?ID=3965)
Heroes in the Face of Horror
St. Vincent's and NYU Downtown members were on the front lines of WTC disaster response.
As the World Trade Center attack began to unfold, hundreds of 1199ers were among the first wave of the relief effort. St. Vincent's and NYU Downtown, both in lower Manhattan, were the first hospitals to treat injured victims. Along with the thousands of workers from other unions, 1199 members worked tirelessly to heal the wounds and ease the devastation of New York City's greatest disaster. 1199 has joined SEIU and the rest of labor to rebuild from the devastation and pay homage to those who paid the ultimate cost in the attacks.
At approximately 8:50 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, life in New York City changed forever.
As tens of thousands made their way through New York City's regular rush-hour throngs, a hijacked jetliner originally bound for Los Angeles from Boston ripped into the North Tower of the World Trade Center and burst into flames. As much of New York City looked on in horror and the flames and thick, black smoke from the first collision grew more intense, the unthinkable happened: a second aircraft, yet another guided missile at the hands of hijackers, tore into the South Tower, sending another swirling mass of smoke and fire high into the clear blue sky.
On Hudson St. and Eighth Avenue in Greenwich Village, less than a mile north of what would become "ground zero," many New Yorkers were frozen, stopped in their tracks at the horror and unimaginable loss of life just a short distance away. Hudson St. for a time became a parking lot as drivers stood beside their stopped cars to watch, helpless and in disbelief as the scene of terror unfolded downtown.
An 1199 News reporter on the way to St. Vincent's Hospital noticed that in the Bleecker Playground at Bleecker and Hudson Streets, where parents, nannies and babies come to play early on lovely late summer mornings like the one that began Sept. 11, some caretakers and parents scooped up babies and fled. It was clear that no one knew what to expect and the instinct to get to the relative safety of one's home took over. The chorus of crying children joined the wails of helpless adults who looked on.
At St. Vincent's Hospital, just a few blocks east on 12th St. and 7th Ave., the closest trauma unit to the WTC disaster prepared for the victims to arrive. But no one in that institution could know what the next hours would bring. As St. Vincent's workers readied their hospital for the expected thousands of victims of smoke, fire and chaos that now engulfed Manhattan's Financial District, the limits of the realm of possibility were once again tested. Within an hour of the initial impacts, some 14 minutes apart, before the eyes of thousands and with at least 5,000 employees, police, firefighters and rescue workers still inside them, the towers - symbols of American strength, pride and ingenuity - buckled and collapsed into a mountain of rubble and 200,000 tons of twisted steel.
Gerry Natwin, who has been a senior social worker at St. Vincent's for 29 years, had just arrived at work when she got news of the disaster. Immediately, Natwin says, staffers began discussing how they would deploy. They were in the midst of planning when they got word that the first tower had fallen.
"I went outside and looked and I couldn't comprehend that the tower wasn't there," says Natwin. "I said, "No, you're wrong. It's right there."
The first family searching for a loved one came to St. Vincent's soon after both buildings had collapsed.
"I'll never forget it. It was a mother and a step-father looking for her son," Natwin says. "We started going through the list of names. There wasn't a coordinated list yet so all I could do was tell them how to check with other hospitals at that point. But when I heard he was on the 102nd floor I didn't hold out much hope."
Natwin says she and her fellow St. Vincent's workers repeated that process with hundreds of families in the days after the attack.
"We would check and double check. Family members would say "No, you're not looking right" or they'd give us details about the person like gold rings or a fat wallet. We'd go over that list three and four times," says Natwin. "It was just so hard because most of the time you knew you weren't going to find the name."
Natwin says there were some bright spots in those days, when she or another staffer would find a name on the survivors list or a supportive word from a co-worker that helped her continue despite exhaustion.
"I have never been as proud of my co-workers as I was during those first days. From housekeepers who stayed well beyond their hours to the kitchen staff who just did not go home, people were extraordinary," says Natwin. "If you put your head down you'd find somebody rubbing your back or offering you something to drink. It was incredible."
Brenda Coleman, a CNA in Ambulatory Care and Recovery was at home in Harlem on her day off when she received the call to come to work.
"I was praying for people all the way there. I was in complete disbelief," says Coleman. "It was tragic and people everywhere were crying, but we knew we had to come together and get the work done."
Coleman says she saw a lot of injured rescue workers and several burn victims. She says she offered as much comfort and care as she could but sometimes felt helpless in the face of such devastation.
"I had a patient who was badly burned. She was thirsty," says Coleman. "I could only give her some ice chips." The support of the community and her co-workers helped Coleman get through those first few hours.
"Work made it easier," says Coleman. "Just knowing that you were there and you were helping."
Elizabeth Burkhart, a St. Vincent's social worker, was in the midst of coordinating community volunteers and blood donors when she spoke with 1199 News.
"It was my day off. When I saw the pictures I came right over," said Burkhart, who had been at St. Vincent's for over 24 hours. Burkhart says that when she arrived from her home, just a few blocks away from St. Vincent's, many New Yorkers had already gone to the hospital to volunteer for any relief effort.
Burkhart said that in addition to the many rescue workers who had been brought in with injuries sustained while trying to aid others, staffers had treated many suffering from shock.
"We treated a woman who had walked all alone from the WTC with no shoes," said Burkhart. "She had worked in Tower Two. She fell and she was trampled. She had no idea how she got here."
To aid those in shock and suffering from the psychological impacts of the devastation, St. Vincent's set up a crisis center at the New School University on West 11th St.. There, those suffering emotional distress could talk with a trained counselor.
Manny Cabrera, an emergency room technician at St. Vincent's, had been at work for nearly two hours when he heard what had happened downtown. He was responsible for keeping supplies stocked throughout the hospital during the crisis period.
He says workers at St. Vincent's became each other's rocks for those first few days. "We helped each other concentrate, focus and keep calm," says Cabrera. "The first day was very hard. There were so many burn patients. We lost three of them on the first day."
Cabrera says it was for the lost, the injured and those searching for loved ones that he and his fellow workers never allowed themselves to give up hope.
"Each day I prayed, lit a candle and tried to fill myself with more energy," says Cabrera. "I tried not to give up. Because when we lose hope we disappear."