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Eyewitness Account — NYEEI Doctors at World Trade Center Triage Site

Written By: Aimi Mosny, M.D., Inder Singal, M.D., Anthony Terraciano, M.D., Daniel Will, M.D.
Senior Ophthalmology Residents, Class of 2002
The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary

It is a war like no other war. With a stroke of brush by evil, Gotham City was converted to a Ghost city on September 11, 2001. The downtown New York City skyline was transformed into an infernal abyss. A nameless enemy had brutally attacked our sense of security in our own home and workplace, used our own technology and citizens as pawns against us, and catapulted the world community into an era of apocalyptic destruction. And yet, in this disaster of unthinkable proportions, rises within this smoke a spirit of resilience throughout New York City, Washington, D.C., our country, and our Allies; a faith and determination to bond together as one and to heal our wounds, one piece of metal at a time.

September 11, 2001, 8:45 AM

The Terror Begins

As ophthalmology residents of The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, located at 14th Street and 2nd Avenue, about a mile and a half north of the World Trade Center, were busy examining patients in our clinics. As the waiting room television showed scenes of the north tower of the World Trade Center on fire, some residents went to the rooftop of our 14-story residence building.

September 11, 2001, 9:03 AM

We witnessed the second airplane crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center. We watched in helpless horror as people fell from the top of the towers. From less than two miles away, we watched helplessly death unfold.

Immediately afterwards, the attending staff and the whole New York Eye and Ear Infirmary family was mobilized. We had more than thirty attendings on site and another thirty on immediate call. Calls were received from alumni, NYSOS, and many others from throughout the USA and abroad volunteering their help and equally importantly lending their moral support. Three residents were sent to the Emergency room at Beth Israel hospital and one at St. Vincent’s. The residents at Beth Israel helped more than thirty patients with corneal abrasions and irritation. The waiting areas of our primarily outpatient Eye and Ear hospital were converted to triage and treatment areas. We stood gloved, gowned, and masked, afraid the causalities would overwhelm the general hospitals and would wind up at NYEE.

On Tuesday we treated more than seventy-five workers for eye irritation. Most of them needed irrigation and only a very few had foreign bodies or abrasions. We irrigated, examined, and treated these men. Most went right back down to the collapsed buildings. They couldn’t rest with the thought of their men from their companies buried there.

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

The Aftermath

We were called upon to help at Ground Zero. The constant exposure to smoke, dust and debris was taking its toll on the eyes of the tireless workers. We left in the early morning with supplies in sunlight, but as we approached the ten-block perimeter of the World Trade Center, the sun disappeared behind a heavy, gray cloud that enveloped the buildings.

In the hub of New York City where just yesterday thousands of people crowded the streets, today there was not one sign of life, not one sound. Inches of gray dust covered the streets, buildings, every leaf of the trees, and blanketed the incinerated, abandoned vehicles. Paper debris, cans of soda, and water bottles floated on top of the sea of gray. It was not the downtown we knew; it was a war zone. The streets were lined with damaged vehicles beyond identification. There was an eerie silence broken constantly by sirens of police and emergency vehicles. It was as if we were watching a sci-fi movie and would return to reality as soon as the theater lights were turned on– unfortunately this was reality.

We walked on ashes. The surgical masks could not hide the smell of fire, mixed with fuel, steel, asbestos, and people that permeated our clothing and burned our lungs. Between the city blocks, we looked toward the shadows and smoke that emanated from the spokes of twisted, melted buildings. As we stood at Ground Zero, silent in our own private grief, we realized how small and incidental we were in comparison to the vastness of destruction. It was a wasteland as devastating as a volcanic eruption, but this was no natural disaster. There was nothing natural about it.

Offering Assistance at Ground Zero

As ophthalmology residents, we had been trained to perform complex intraocular and intraorbital surgeries, but never could we have been trained to see such suffering. We set up triage areas only one block away on four different sides of the disaster area. We went round-the-clock to staff the triage areas at the Independence School, Century 21, which was a department store, Stuyvesant High School, and Burger King, all located within Ground Zero.

Hundreds of workers needed eye care. To meet this need, a schedule of 6-hour shifts was set up to cover the necessary sites. These teams include residents, attendings and nurses. Cell phone communication allowed Infirmary Command Station to keep abreast of the needs at the sites and to supply relief shifts with the necessary supplies. These supplies initially came from The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary stocks but were rapidly refilled from Pharmaceutical Companies, Volunteer Health Projects and private offices.

One by one, a firefighter, a construction worker, a national guardsman, would walk in covered in gray ashes, their eyes injected, but not one complained. Instead, they sat down silently, leaned their heads back, and waited for an eye rinse. Nearby carts were laden with Refresh Tears, Proparacaine, fluorescein strips, Q-tips, Ph paper, topical antibiotics and NSAIDs, contact lens solution. We put in drops of Proparacaine, looked at their eyes with a penlight, flipped and swept their eyelids, and rinsed their eyes with normal saline from an IV bag and asked how their spirits were.

Every fireman who came in knew of someone missing from his or her company. All of these faces looked as though they had experienced and walked through the depths of what would be the worst imaginable, and yet they all said they had to return to work. Over the next three days we treated hundreds of workers for eye irritation. Most of them required eyewash and minor treatment but some had severe corneal abrasions and were referred to New York Eye and Ear Infirmary for further management.

Friday, September 14, 2001, 5:00 AM

A Job Well Done

This system ran well, 24 hours a day until the team in the lobby of AMEX Building was told their job is finished, as the National Guard was now in command. Our last formal team left Stuyvesant High School around noon the same day and was complemented by the Emergency Task Force leader on the organization and professionalism of the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary’s response to the tragedy. The New York Eye and Ear Infirmary remained a repository for supplying eye needs through FEMA and on Saturday, September 15 we took more supplies via FBI transportation.

Time for Reflection and Healing

Thousands of police officers, construction workers, firemen, military, and medical personnel from around the country were working tirelessly around the clock within and around Ground Zero. The sleek grace and beautiful silvery architecture of the World Trade Center was reduced to skeletons of steel. It is now surrounded by tombstones of the remaining buildings, who are also on the verge of collapse. Every man and woman, standing on the mountain of debris, worked with the silent reserve that we all came together to do the work that needed to be done — to try to find some solace amidst the tons of rubble, and to try to heal as a nation.

They tell us constantly that we will revenge this heinous act by punishing the people involved. The true revenge will be not only to punish the few involved but also to better educate the entire world not to hate the fellow human in the name of religion and region. That and that only will bring peace to the souls of the martyrs of WTC and only that will bring peace on this earth.