(from SEIU/1199 News November 2001, online version: http://www.1199seiu.org/articles/article.cfm?ID=4375)

Courage and Devotion   

Paramedic heroes survive Sept. 11 and beyond

st johns heroesFor 12 years St. John's Hospital paramedics James Dobson and Marvin Bethea looked forward to Tuesdays. That was the one day each week that their work schedules teamed them in the same ambulance. 1199 News interviewed the two World Trade Center heroes at St. John's last month.

"My wife, Linda, often reminded me how much more pleasant I was on Tuesdays than on other mornings," says Dobson.

"I love working with Jimmy," says Bethea. "He s a real professional. And we also think alike; we re on the same wavelength. We re like brothers."

Dobson, Bethea and a paramedic student, Anthony Corso, had just treated a cardiac patient when they received an emergency call on their ambulance radio shortly after 9 a.m. on Sept. 11. Bethea was talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone at the time. She was watching TV and after seeing the broadcast of the second crash, she pleaded with Bethea to stay away from the World Trade Center.

The three raced to the scene, first parking a few blocks from the towers before settling even closer, at Church and Fulton streets where a triage had been set up.

"Remember, at this time, no one expected the towers to collapse," Dobson says. "We assumed that we should get as close to the towers as possible."

In the confusion, Bethea and Dobson were separated. Bethea led some of the injured persons fleeing the towers into a nearby Chase Manhattan bank, treating the most critical first.

"I was doing fine," says Bethea. "I was able to get some of the people in the bank to help me with the bandaging and other first aid. Then I felt what seemed like an avalanche or an earthquake.

"The windows of the bank blew out and it seemed as if day turned into night. I couldn t see more than two inches in front of me. The burning in my throat was so intense, I couldn t swallow. I heard piercing cries and screams in the darkness. I prayed that whatever was causing this would soon end.

"I later learned that what felt like an earthquake was the collapse of the south tower. I was able to collect myself and lead the survivors who were in the bank up Broadway."

Bethea said one of his main challenges then was to maintain his composure in the midst of horror and chaos. He barely escaped the collapse of the second tower while pulling an injured woman who was too frightened to move into the nearby Millenium Hilton hotel. He stayed in the hotel until enough smoke and dust cleared to make it possible to see. When he went back into the streets, he couldn't believe the destruction. "I figured the situation was so bad that Jimmy was dead."

Dobson, meanwhile, was concerned about Bethea. He had remained with the ambulance, hauling the injured on makeshift stretchers to safety. He had already driven injured survivors through a fog of ash to nearby NYU Downtown Hospital. "I had no idea where I was going the first time I drove away from the towers. I stumbled onto the hospital because some doctors waved me down," he says.

After dropping off patients, Dobson drove back towards the North Tower. Seven persons were in the back of the ambulance. "When the second tower collapsed everything went black and then orange," Dobson says. " This is not a good way to end my career, I said to myself."

Both paramedics were trapped: Bethea in the Millenium Hilton and Dobson in his ambulance. "By this time, most of the vehicles that had arrived at the towers had been destroyed," Dobson says. As debris rained on the ambulance, Dobson prayed that he and his passengers wouldn't be buried alive. "Luckily, the air began to clear and I was able to drive off," he says

"I was also praying that my wife was OK," says Dobson, fighting back tears welling in his eyes. "Her office is on Broadway and Liberty, and I think I continued to work because I identified with those who had loved ones in the area."

By noon, Dobson had rescued a police officer who suffered a heart attack, a comatose woman and several dazed and disoriented victims looking for anyone to direct them away from the horror.

On one of his trips from NYU Downtown towards the wreckage of the towers Dobson spotted a solitary figure among the debris who appeared to be holding a cell phone to his ear.

"I couldn't believe that I had found Marvin (Bethea)," Dobson. said.

"There was nothing moving where I was," says Bethea. "Then I saw a vehicle coming towards me through the dust. I said to myself, It's a miracle. It's Jimmy. "

Dobson jumped out of the ambulance, and the partners who feared they had seen each other for the last time, didn't say a word. They embraced.

Rather than return to Queens, they went to the nearest subway station to see if they could help anyone who might have been injured or trapped. They worked until three in the afternoon when they both were overcome with emotional exhaustion. By then they had learned that student Corso was OK.

"I ve been called to plane crashes, train crashes and I ve seen multiple deaths," says Dobson. "But I ve never seen anything like that."

"I've had a gun pointed to my head twice and I've been shot at," says Bethea. "But nothing I've experienced can compare to Sept. 11."

Bethea and Dobson went to work on Sept. 12 and worked every Tuesday together through Oct. 16. Those weeks had been difficult for both. Each describes nightmares and sleepless nights. On the Oct. 16, the partners were chatting after having helped save a woman who had suffered a heart attack.

"Suddenly, Marvin's speech became slurred," recalls Dobson. "He had suffered a stroke." Dobson knew the procedure: Take vital signs, perform an EKG, insert an IV, and call ahead. The doctors were ready for Bethea when Dobson lifted him out of the ambulance.

"Luckily, I was with Jimmy," Bethea says. "His knowledge and quick action definitely helped minimize the damage."

The partners say that Sept. 11 has taught them both a greater appreciation of life and of each other. They consider themselves fortunate.

At press time, Bethea was in a Westchester rehab facility. A regular caller and visitor is Dobson, his friend, partner and brother.