05 Sep The Trauma and the Miracles
ON SEPTEMBER 11, when two hijacked planes deliberately crashed into the Twin Towers of New York City, it was not only the civilians who work in the towers that were struck, but the hundreds of emergency workers that rushed to the scene to help. As a result, many of them became victims themselves. As in other MCI’s (Mass Casualty Incidents) the City of NY requests Hatzalah’s assistance. Without hesitation ambulances and volunteers from Boro Park, Crown Heights, Flatbush, Lower East Side, Queens, Riverdale, Rockaway, Staten Island, Upper East Side, Washington Heights, West Side, and Williamsburg responded to this request for help. No one had any concept of what was in store for them they just went. Today, we see how many New York firemen and police officers lost their lives that day. Hakadosh Boruch Hu performed an astounding miracle for our brave Hatzalah members; who were all spared and were able to return home to their families. Who can explain the magnitude of what took place that Tuesday morning in NY city? “It started out as a regular day…We have to appreciate each moment and know that anything can happen in an instant”. These are the words of Hatzalah member, Zushie Rimler. Here he shares his story of survival—the trauma and the miracles. Our Hatzalah unit left Brooklyn as soon as the first plane crashed. We loaded up an ambulance and went on our way immediately. While enroute the second plane crashed and at that moment, we all knew that this was no accident. As we were passing the fire station on Tillary St. right before the Manhattan Bridge the traffic was at a standstill. We were trying to navigate through the crowded streets, a fire truck pulled out of the station and ended up clearing the way for us to proceed into Manhattan. We were able to follow the fire truck the whole way. Many firemen and police officers started jumping into our ambulance to catch a ride to the scene, until we were as packed as a rush hour subway car. Hatzalah had originally instructed us to meet up at the Gramercy garage a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. Because we were following the fire truck, we ended up North of the World Trade Center. We were unable to navigate to the staging area and we ended up stopping on West Street. We stopped our ambulance 2 blocks North and walked our stretcher & equipment down to the scene. When we arrived both buildings were burning. As we were walking towards the towers it appeared that there was debris flying from the windows. When we got closer, we could see that this wasn’t debris, there was a steady stream of people coming out of those windows. I don’t know if they were jumping or falling, all I know is that there were many, many people. The scene was horrific. The details are too graphic to repeat. Our group of eight met up with seven other Hatzalah members who also ended up near West Street. Us fifteen Jewish volunteers were grouped with another ten/fifteen emergency workers, and the Fire department assigned a lieutenant over our group. We were getting ready to enter the South tower, when the lieutenant received word over his radio of two FDNY personnel had died as a result of the falling victims. Being that we didn’t have proper helmets the decision was made that we would remain at the divider of the North & Southbound lanes. We were positioned about fifty feet away from the tower with the plan being that the few hundred firemen who had just entered the buildings would bring the patients out to us for treatment. While waiting a supervisor kept coming over to our group every few minutes making snide comments. It was clear to all what was bothering her. She seemed uncomfortable with a group of Orthodox Jews as part of the group, until finally she said, “I want you guys to go over there” being indirect about whom she’s referring to, and where exactly to go. Everyone knows who “You guys” are. She was of a higher rank over our lieutenant, and the lieutenant told us “if splitting the group and having some (being the Jewish guys) cross the Southbound lanes and waiting there, would keep her from making her remarks let’s do it, we’re still all together here” This would have increased our distance to the towers by another 30 feet We started walking across the street with our equipment, when suddenly we heard an indescribable noise, like the roar of a jet engine. Everyone started running away from the noise, afraid that a third plane was coming, perhaps they are crashing a third plane into the group of rescuers. Some guys managed to run all the way across the street to the Financial Center, but I never made it that far. My back was to the towers, and I had no idea what was happening. It started getting darker and darker, things were falling and I was getting hit again and again. Being knocked down and without properly thinking I took shelter under a car (never a good idea). It was so dark and thick dust was filling the air fast. we couldn’t see anything and it felt like someone had taken my face and buried it in a sandbox, every breath filled my lungs with sand. There was no way I would ever make it out alive. I was sure I was going to die. I remember screaming Shema Yisrael praying for my family and thinking, “I came here to help people, but now who will take care of my family?” Once things stopped coming down, there was this eerie silence. There was no screaming, no sirens, no sounds at all just total quiet. There was this subtle sound, which as it turns out was papers, there was lots & lots of papers flying and landing everywhere It was extremely hard to breath, every attempted breath filled your lungs more and more with sand, I tried using my shirt to filter the air, but it was also just covered and full with that toxic dust. Not hearing or seeing anything, brought the thought that no one else here is alive. While stumbling my way to find a way out I heard a sound of someone else coughing & struggling to breath. I started heading toward that sound. It was a voice I knew. It was my brother; a fellow Hatzalah member. We had rushed to the scene together, but who could imagine that amidst the total devastation, my brother is the first person I’d find. This was an unbelievable miracle! At that time, we thought we were the only survivors from our group, and from all those around us. We were coughing and gagging, and couldn’t breathe. We started walking in the direction we had come from barely able to see, we were just trying to feel our way. We walked back to where we had been stationed originally, before the supervisor from the fire department had sent us away. The chunks of steel and concrete that we found there were insurmountable. We could not even climb over them to get out. Had we been standing there, we would have likely been crushed like the other half of our group. As time went on, the dust slowly began to settle, turning the air from black to gray. We saw a light and started walking towards it and realized that it was coming from the front of a fire truck. Initially my brother was thinking of hiding inside of that truck, but he never reached it. Once we approached the truck, we saw that all the firemen inside had been crushed. As we continued walking, we stepped on something and heard a moan. It was a fireman covered with blood and dust. We told him to come with us so we get out of here. He was having a hard time breathing, and had gotten so much dust in his eyes that he wasn’t able to see, we were his eyes. We could hardly breathe ourselves and were unable to carry him, but he stood up and we led the way. As we were trying to make our way out to somewhere, we had again stepped on something and heard a moan. It was a police officer, we tried lifting him up and getting him to join us. He was screaming, “My arm, my arm!” His arm was obviously broken, we tried explaining him that right now, we can’t worry about your arm, we have to worry about your life and get him out of there. He was not thinking rationally, he just kept screaming about his arm, resisting our help to the point that we could not convince him to come with us. We still didn’t know what had transpired, we had thought a third plane had crashed. As it would be, this was only minutes before the second tower would collapse, I cannot imagine this officer surviving the second collapse. Leaving him behind haunts me continuously. What choice did we have, we couldn’t force him to come along As we were walking away from what is now called ground zero, it was becoming lighter. Suddenly, my brother said, “Look at you, you’re bleeding from your head.” I remember pointing around on the ground at the bodies lying all over “Bleeding? Look at all of them, we’re B’H on our own two feet!” We walked until we reached the Hudson River, we found a bench and put fireman down. Just then boats came along and started evacuating as many people as possible from Lower Manhattan. It was only then that we were told that the South Tower had collapsed. We started helping people over the seawall and onto the boats, including the fireman that had come with us. We spent a few minutes getting people over the wall and onto these boats, when suddenly we heard that same load sound again, but this time we knew what it was another collapse. A Police boat captain screamed to us to get on board as he doesn’t want to stay there. My brother and I jumped the wall on to the boat as he sped away. The boat took us to Liberty State Park in New Jersey. When we got off the boat, I was feeling dizzy, after a short while. I started feeling somewhat better, and kept thinking of all the people who needed help, and that we can’t just leave them there to die. I went back to Manhattan, expecting to find severely injured people that needed help. After spending some time at what’s now known as ground zero, I realized how few critically injured people there were to treat, so I returned to New Jersey, thinking that’s where the people needing help might have ended up. In NJ I met up with two other Hatzalah members from our original group, plus many other members of various divisions who had not been to ground zero, but had to come to help. Once again, no one was in dire need of our assistance. A boat arrived and took us to a triage center that was set up in the NY side at Chelsea Piers. By the time I arrived at Chelsea Piers, my fellow Hatzalah members, along with a group that came in from Monsey, took one look at me and were concerned on how I looked, my lungs were hurting & I looked like I was on the verge of collapsing.” They wanted to take me to the hospital; but I assumed the hospitals would be packed, so I declined. Cell service was down but around 11:00 AM. I did manage to get through to my home phone where I tried leaving a message that my brother and I survived. With the bad cell service and chaotic noise, my wife wasn’t able to make out what I was saying. Other than that message we had no communication with our families, who were now extremely worried what had happened to us all. My father was terribly shaken, he has two sons in Hatzalah who he knew were there and now there’s terrible news coming about the terrorist attack. Walking down Kingston Ave. in Crown Heights he sees a Hatzalah member covered in soot, who had just walked all the way back from downtown Manhattan. When my father asked him if he knew anything about our Hatzalah group he told my father, “As far as I know everyone has been accounted for, except for your two sons.” This member was in a daze and in a state of total shock and confusion. He later told me that he has no recollection of what happened in the hours after, and has no idea why he told that to my father. Immediately, my father began to panic & called one of our local Hatzalah coordinators, who is a neighborhood doctor. He told my father that he can confirm that one of his sons, myself wasn’t feeling well and that arrangements were being made to have some of us brought via ambulance to his office, he added that he cannot confirm anything about my brother. As soon as we arrived at his office, the doctor asked if I knew anything about my brother. When I told him that he was fine, he picked up the phone, dialed, and said, “Here, tell it to your father.” .. Just imagine, 1,400 feet of steel, concrete, glass, people, computer equipment, furniture, & more…Where did everything go? Everything had turned to dust. It was too much to comprehend. The following week when we opened the Aron Hakodesh after Unisane Tokef and said the verse “Man’s origin is dust and his end onto dust” it put a whole new meaning. We don’t realize how in a split second everything can be taken from us. We need to be grateful and thank Hashem for our families and our friends. The things many people take for granted, the ability to breathe, walk, talk, see etc. we must thank Hashem for the daily gifts he gives us. Tragically 2,763 died at the world trade center, of which 412 were first responders. We were mixed together with all first responders, yet other then some minor injuries Hashem performed a miracle and all Hatzalah members survived. Let’s do our part continue to bring light into this world so that we can merit the coming of Moshiach where the world will be a peaceful place.