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'I'm an EMT, I Have to Go Down There' -- Running Toward the Towers on 9/11

I was in my Greenwich Village apartment shortly before 9 a.m. on September 11, 2001 when my wife, Alisa, called from her office on Wall Street saying "Something big just exploded!" 

I turned on the television and saw the early reports that a plane had "accidentally" hit the World Trade Center. My first thought was to get to work quickly, but after I hung up the phone, I saw the smoke billowing from the north tower, and I thought "I'm an EMT – I have to go down there". When I called Alisa back to tell her I was going, she said, "Be careful-- there was just another huge explosion and my entire building shook."

Outside of my apartment on the corner of Bleecker Street and Broadway, the streets were filled with people staring south at the towers and at the smoke billowing up into the bright blue sky. I stood there on the corner for a second looking at the towers, not realizing that I would never see that view again.

I flagged down a man driving an unmarked car with a flashing red light, and identified myself as an EMT. He said, "I'm FBI. Get in." We raced down Broadway joining a long caravan of emergency vehicles, Both of us tried, unsuccessfully, to get through to anyone on our cell phones who could give us some information.

I was struck by the sight of ordinary New Yorkers-- from businessmen to shopkeepers-- standing at each intersection directing traffic. By this time, there were hundreds of fire trucks, police cars and ambulances coming from every direction, and I couldn't believe how easily we were able to get through the streets, because regular citizens were everywhere-- clearing the intersections and directing us in.

The agent stopped at an FBI command post that appeared to be springing up at the federal building, and I ran the last 2 or 3 blocks on foot. As I approached the towers, I looked up at the two big, gaping holes and the debris falling down to the street. People were jumping from the upper floors -- and maybe it was my mind protecting me-- but I didn't realize that those same people were bodies on the ground until somebody pointed it out. Luckily I didn't see anyone land.

A police officer pointed out the large chunks of engines and plane, which clearly had come from a huge jetliner. and I realized for the first time that this was not an accident involving a small plane.

An EMS command post and medical staging area was being set up at West and Vesey streets and I identified myself as an Emergency Medical Technician to the fire captain in charge and asked if he needed help. His answer surprised me-- he simply said "Yes." 

At that point I appeared to be the only volunteer on the scene, although off duty firemen and medics were beginning to show up. The captain directed me to a group of about 20 EMT's and medics and put me on a team with two NYFD EMT's. He told us that we would be a "fast team": One of the EMT's would stay with the ambulance, and myself and the other one would get patients. We were told to grab as many non-critically injured people (those who could be moved without being injured further) as we could, load them in the ambulance, and head out of the area. Fast. Other teams would be treating people on the scene, getting them stabilized and ready for transport.

I was given a reflective vest that would identify me as an EMT. As I began adjusting my vest, I was stunned by the loudest sound I've ever heard. It sounded like a jet engine about to land on our heads, and my first thought was "Oh my God -- another plane". But it was the building. I watched in horror as the top floors peeled off like a banana and started coming straight down towards us.

Luckily we were positioned on a corner, and I dropped the vest and started running due west as fast as I possibly could. At one point, I looked over my shoulder at the thick wall of debris and smoke chasing us and thought, "I can't believe I'm out-running this thing." 

I knew I wouldn't be able to out-run it for long, so at the next corner I jumped around the side of the building and shielded my face against a wall. The blast of dust and smoke hit me and kept on going, and it became eerily quiet. I never saw any of the guys that I had been stationed with again -- I'm hoping that they made it out.

As the dust cleared, I could hear a few voices coming from within the dark cloud that now enveloped the streets to my east. The dust was so thick that people were choking on it and couldn't see where to go. I joined a few police officers who started going back into the cloud to pull people out. 

We got a sheet to rip up and tie around our faces, but it provided little help in keeping the dust out of our mouths. Most of the people could still walk but they couldn't see, so they didn't know which way to go. They were coughing and stumbling around, and we were dragging them out, getting them into fresh air and sitting them down on the curb. Most of the ambulances were now under the rubble, and the oxygen, stretchers, backboards, and medical supplies were all buried, but somehow I came across a couple of oxygen tanks that had been abandoned. 

Before we could administer the oxygen, we had to get the debris and dust out of the patients' mouths. Amazingly, people started coming out of nowhere with bottles of water. Stores were opening their doors and emptying their shelves to give us water which we could use to clean out victims' eyes and mouths.

It seemed like only minutes later that the unimaginable happened again. Someone began yelling "The tower's leaning! The tower is leaning!" and this time I didn't take the time to look up -- I just started running. Sure enough, it all started coming down -- and once again we were running for our lives. 

With the first collapse, it seemed to be mostly civilians needing help. This time it was firemen, police officers and a few people from the Mayor's Office of Emergency Management. They were all screaming into their radios, trying to locate members of their units and battalions, and nobody was answering.

These policemen and firefighters were so worried about their colleagues that most of them refused help -- even when they really needed it. When I tried to get a fireman who had collapsed onto a stretcher, and he said "No, leave me here, go get someone who needs it." A police officer and I helped him to his feet and he collapsed again, but still refused our help. "Save it for someone who needs it" he begged, "there are guys in there who need it more." It wasn't until he tried to stand unsuccessfully a third time that he allowed us to carry him out. 

Another fireman appeared to be having a heart attack, and was having trouble breathing. At this point we had been pushed all the way to the water, and someone saw a passenger ferry going by. We flagged it down and it pulled up close enough for us to load the fireman on board. I climbed aboard and told the ferry captain that we needed to go across the Hudson River to New Jersey immediately, but the fireman told me to stay on land. "I'll be OK" he said, "but people still need help back there." I asked him how many firemen were in the towers. He looked up at me and said, "thousands," and then burst into tears.

Phone lines were down, and cell phone communication was non-existent. I had no way to tell anyone about the ferry and the fireman that would be arriving in New Jersey, and I couldn't tell my wife, Alisa, that I was alive.

To make matters worse, I could tell that people were trying frantically to contact me because my cell phone and pager kept beeping, but I couldn't call out. After loading the fireman onto the ferry, some other firefighters and I began searching for a working phone. We ran into buildings that had been abandoned and went from room to looking for phones.

In one of the buildings we came across a woman who said, "I just had back surgery and I can't walk." She was completely beside herself and had been trying to get out of her building for over an hour. Someone from the Parks Department had a golf cart-type vehicle outside, and we loaded the woman onto it and started driving north. 

Along the way, we picked up people up who were injured or having trouble breathing. Once we found some ambulances, we transferred the patients and started looking for phones again. 

We finally found a working phone inside an evacuated school, and after about 7 tries I was able to reach Alisa. She had been trying to reach me for over an hour, and was convinced that I had been killed. They had been trying to evacuate her building, but she wouldn't leave until she reached me. 

I was also able to make a call to Fox News, and after finding out that I was OK, they asked me to go on the air for a quick 2 minute "phoner."

I stayed down at the scene for about another hour, until it seemed as though anyone who was able to get out was out. Somebody said that there was a treatment center being set up at Chelsea Piers, an area next to the Hudson River, about 20 blocks north of the Twin Towers. 

I flagged down another car -- this time it was driven by an INS agent who was also a paramedic -- and we made our way uptown. 

We were directed to the soundstage where the TV show "Law & Order" is usually taped. Emergency workers were already converting the huge warehouse-like soundstage into a makeshift hospital.

Rooms were set up by color -- Red for critical injuries; yellow for wounds that might become life threatening; green for "walking wounded" and black was the morgue, which was set up on the Chelsea Piers ice skating rink. 

I was assigned to the "red room" and to a group of tables each staffed with a trauma surgeon, nurse, doctor and paramedic. Altogether, there were over 500 doctors, nurses and EMTs at the piers, and we worked feverishly to unload and set up medical equipment that was arriving by the truckload. 

Every few minutes there would be an announcement telling us to expect between 500 and 1,000 patients "any minute." But as time wore on, it became clear that no patients were coming, and the reality began to sink in that everyone was dead. 

Close to six hundred trained professionals sat and stewed, wanting to help someone, anyone. But no one arrived.

At 7 p.m., I left the piers and began the long walk to the Fox News studios to be the lead guest on "The O'Reilly Factor" -- the show on which I normally work behind the scenes as a producer. 

After finishing up at Fox, I walked back down to Chelsea Piers. There were still 500 doctors there, waiting for patients, but they had only treated a few minor injuries. When I left, at about midnight, they were still completely ready, "just in case." I was told to check back in the morning, because there was the hope that with daylight, rescue operations might be more successful.

As I walked home, there was not one person or car on the street except for police and emergency vehicles. I had never seen New York so empty and quiet, and it was very disconcerting.

I watched the media coverage on TV until about 3 a.m., then slept until five. 

I turned on the TV back at 5 a.m. on hoping to hear about survivors. Apparently they were pulling two or three people out of what was now called "Ground Zero" -- not enough to require any more help from me.

Ten years later, it is hard to describe just how long ago 9/11 "feels like." Those 10 years feel both like an eternity, and like barely anytime has passed at all.

To anyone under the age of 30, the pre-Facebook, blog, and texting world seems like ancient history. Alisa and I have since moved out to the suburbs and had three daughters, the oldest of whom just started first grade. 

Yet thinking back on the details of that day it could have been weeks ago. I remember the sights, the sounds, and can still close my eyes and smell the unmistakable odor that lingered for months as Ground Zero smoldered.

Although I hope we never have to suffer though a day like that again, there is one aspect that I am almost nostalgic for and it is one that seems to be the most easily forgotten 10 years later: From the moment that the first plane struck, there was a sense of togetherness. We were in it together and everyone looked out for each other from minute one. 

Waiters and stockbrokers stood side by side on the street, cleaning the dust from the faces of firefighters using bottles of water that store owners were dragging out by the case. When the subways started rolling again, rather than sit in silence as people did before and do now-- consumed by newspapers and iPods-- people actually talked to each other. Because suddenly we weren't strangers anymore-- we were in it together.

For the first few weeks, I couldn't get into bed at night without running through the events of September 11th in my mind. I wondered "What if I had been standing on a different corner? Could I have done more? Would I have been dead? What happened to the other members of the team to which I was first assigned? Should I have tried to go deeper into the cloud of smoke?" Questions that can never be answered. 

But I also couldn't stop thinking about the amazing acts of bravery and kindness that I saw. The regular people standing in the street directing traffic, the firemen refusing stretchers, the restaurant workers who, days later, were stuffing their trunks with hot meals and sneaking their way through police checkpoints to feed rescue workers.

September 11, was a truly a day of unspeakable horror, but the many acts of incredible bravery and selfless charity that I witnessed that day, through the dust and the rubble and the chaos, made me feel good about America and proud to be a New Yorker.

Dan Cohen is a Fox News Channel producer. 

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