(from SEIU/1199 News October 2001, online version: http://www.1199seiu.org/articles/article.cfm?ID=3964)


On the Edge of Hell

Edge of HellWorkers at New York University Downtown Hospital became a beacon of hope as the community they work in was plunged into terror with the destruction of the World Trade Center.

New York Downtown was the first to receive injured victims of the Sept. 11 disaster. The hospital is located at William and Beekman Streets, just a few blocks from what is now known as "ground zero." Several employees told 1199 News that on Sept. 11 it felt like they were in hell.     

Bill Lynch, a lead carpenter at NYU Downtown, says it was a quiet morning in the hospital when he arrived for his eight to four shift.

"I got to work and was called for a code red in the recovery room. There was a short in one of the blanket warmers. I fixed it and went about my business," says Lynch. "Then the quality assurance director came running and said there had been an explosion at the World Trade Center - a code yellow. I looked out and saw the building burning."

Flying shards of metal, glass and concrete from the jetliner's impact had rained down on the pedestrians below. One patient was severely injured when she was struck by a piece of the plane's wing. A triage unit was set up in the cafeteria. Staffers began preparing makeshift beds out of chairs and sheets and filling tubs with water for the burn victims who would inevitably be brought in. As the black clouds of smoke and flames filled the sky, terrified and wounded New Yorkers immediately began pouring into the hospital, says Lynch.

"They looked like something from a ghost story, covered in ashes," says Lynch, who stayed at the hospital for several days along with fellow electricians and mechanics who manned a generator when the area lost power and phone service with the collapse of WTC No. 7. "Many looked like something from the grave, with their red eyes, all cut and torn up."

New York Downtown paramedics Juana Lomi and her partner Lesandro Rijos were at their station at the hospital when they heard the initial impact. Lomi says they raced to the chaotic scene, where they treated the many who had been injured and trampled. Lomi was in the midst of triaging wounds and broken bones when the shadow of the second plane passed over her.

"I hope I never live to see something like that again," says Lomi. "The rumbling, the sound - I'll never forget it. Everything went dark from the smoke and I began trying to push people into the subway so they'd be safe. I looked up and saw something falling. They were bodies, people falling from the buildings."

Lomi was in the Chambers St. subway station attempting to assist hundreds of New Yorkers who had sought shelter from the apocalyptic scene above and trying to locate her partner, from whom she had become separated, when the towers began to collapse.

"When I finally came out of the subway there were body parts and pieces of the buildings everywhere," says Lomi, who eventually located her partner three hours later.

Back at the hospital, which had been engulfed in the massive cloud of dust, smoke and hot ash that moved through the Financial District when the buildings fell, ER registrar Betty Nelson was frantically trying to keep track of the hundreds of patients rushing into the emergency room. Some were badly injured and others were suffering from smoke inhalation or shock. Nelson knew it was crucial that she take at least the basic information from everyone so they could be identified and located.

"There was screaming and crying, some people were walking around in a daze," says Nelson. "But that adrenaline was pumping so you could keep moving."

Nelson says she received hundreds of calls from panicked family members trying to locate loved ones, but for the most part she had no information. At the time, she just kept working, she says, but now she feels the sadness of her inability to do more.

"I'm feeling the helplessness now," says Nelson. "I'm depressed and I'm still getting calls from people who are trying to locate the missing. I can't tell them anything. It's sad and it hurts."

Paramedic Kenrick Samuel echoed Nelson's frustration at being so close to the scene of devastation but unable to do more to ease the suffering.

"As a medic it was just the most horrendous thing because you couldn' take care of everyone," says Kenrick. "But the enormity of it all - to take it in all at once - was just too much."