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Doctors' Journals: Horror and Frustration

ByABC News
September 27, 2001, 6:36 PM

Sept. 28 -- Doctors share their horror and frustration from their experiences at Ground Zero, during the first and following days of the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11. Here are excerpts:

Dr. Susan M. Briggs, Surgeon, Massachusetts General Hospital

I left on three hours notice with a group of 70 people, all of whom belong to the Boston FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Association) unit. In this type of situation there's a lot of uncertainly about the number of survivors and casualties. So we packed up a "full load," with tents, generators, and plenty of medical supplies. At 4a.m. we arrived at Stewart Air Force Base, and then made our way into New York. In the pouring rain, we set up our equipment in a playground near the site, but there were no complaints from any one of the 70 people.

As soon as crews secured the scene and the fires stopped, we set up four tents at each of the four quadrants, about ten feet from the rubble. We've seen a huge number of injuries to the rescue workers, both minor and major. Many of them have been eye injurieshowever, some workers got burned the other day because of an explosion on top the rubble. If it's not a serious injury that requires hospital care, they keep digging through the rubblewe can't get them to quit!

When I look at the numbers, it's hard to believe the fatality rate versus the survivors.I've been to a lot of disasters, like earthquakes, some which were pretty bad. But at least there were still a lot of survivors. Because of the nature of these explosions, the number of people who got out alive are very few. Hospitals here haven't been overwhelmed at all, in terms of injuries, only several hundred.

The dedication of everyone is unbelievable! It's incredibly inspiring watching people who lost loved ones digging through the rubble instead of trying to grieve.

Dr. Richard Hatchett, Attending Physician, Urgent Care Center, Sloan-Kettering

I was on duty in the emergency room at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11. I heard about the plane hitting the fist tower, and came out to see what was going on, and saw the second plane hit. We stood there gaping for a few minutes, in total disbelief. Nobody knew what the numbers would be. I thought we'd see a lot of victims. But as the day wore on, we realized there weren't going to be a lot of survivors.

I came back the next morning, just to see what was happening. Somebody had posted a notice that the city had called for volunteer physicians to help out at the site. Joey Nuccio and I had the privilege and honor of serving as coordinators for the volunteer effort at the Stuyvesant Triage Center. Neither of us was appointed to this position and neither of us was qualified by anything other than a desire to help. Several hundred New Yorkers working "under" us put together a functioning, exceptionally well-supplied medical and surgical triage unit comprising of 25-30 beds.

We provided services to search and rescue workers, ranging from suturing of wounds and setting of broken bones to eye washes, to acute respiratory and cardiac care to grief counseling in about 48 hours. There was no specific chain of supply, no secure communications, no staffing arrangements, and no financial support. We were given space, some rudimentary starter supplies, the right to organize ourselves, and accumulated probably hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars' worth of drugs and medical equipment.

The only problem we had was when there was a near collapse of one of the structures. The debris fell very close to where the triage area was. There was a stampede of firemen and other workers, and a pregnant nurse was trampled on. EMS didn't want us up there because they didn't know which buildings were safe, and they didn't know what came out of the building, such as jet fuel and toxins in the dust.

By Thursday there were a lot of people smiling and hugging each other. The human response to the tragedy made you feel like somehow good was going to come out of this. Whoever attacked the towers had failed, if their purpose was to terrorize us. What it did was galvanize us. As soon as I signed off to the federal disaster team, I felt fortunate to be given to opportunity to help out. To be task-oriented was good thing. I feel bad for Americans who live far away and can't do anything except give blood.

The site was a total sensory thing, gravel crunching under your foot, ash, the smell was just awful, the most penetrating thing you could imagine. You would walk by and look at these private financial documents, strewn across blocks and blocks like wallpaper. These confidential documents are now totally irrelevant. There just wasn't a camera shot that could give you a sense of the devastation. It really looked like a special effect out of a movie. It was utter ruin, like a nuclear bomb had gone off. It was devastating, hard to imagine.

After we had gone to one of the sites, we were walking away and saw an empty baby carriage covered with ash, upside down, abandoned on the side of a street. That's when it all hit me.

Dr. Joseph Ornato, Chairman of Emergency Medicine, Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center

On Sept. 11, I was attending a National Institutes of Health research meeting. Just by chance, it was held at the Brooklyn Marriott. We found out about the attacks after workers had us evacuate the hotel. A short while later we learned they needed physicians, nurses, and medics down by the site.

Someone in our group flagged down a passing fire unit, and we volunteered our help. They radioed to their command center, and the Lieutenant commandeered a bus that picked us up. Originally, they planned to drop us off at Battery Park, by the World Trade Center. We ended up getting there about an hour after the buildings collapsed. The fire crew stopped us and wouldn't let us go to the location because Word Trade Center building #7 was in the process of falling down. That was probably the scariest moment. It collapsed right down the street from us. We ran to get out of the way because the debris was heading right towards us.