Is there anyone in New York who does not remember what they did that day?
A few minutes after nine in the morning, as I drove to Brooklyn Hospital, I rounded the curve on the Belt Parkway where it sweeps past Owl’s Head Park and came face to face with a column of smoke. The traffic was moderate, many cars having pulled over, drivers and passengers watching in shock. I drove on.
Fourth Avenue was full of emergency vehicles. I parked at a fire hydrant, hoping (correctly, as it turned out) that no one would ticket a car with an MD plate half a mile a hospital on a day like that. I walked to the hospital under a thickening plume of smoke blown south-east, the smell of destruction in the air.
Tuesdays were teaching days for me then, precepting students and residents in the well baby clinic, but I reported straight to the emergency department. This was not going to be a day for well care. The ED was full of doctors, nurses, technicians, security — but no patients. On TV the second tower was falling.
The senior ED doctor came to me. “I have to get home,” he said. His face was pale, his eyes haunted. As an Arab Muslim, he must have thought all morning: who could have done such a thing? And who would be found to pay for it? He was, I think, half wrong in his conclusions: wrong that he, and others like him, might be targets for revenge. New Yorkers are better people than that. Flags were raised that day, not burned.
So home he went, and I stayed in charge of Pediatric ED. A few patients came my way: children form subways, with smoke inhalation; teens, overheated and dehydrated from walking across Mahnattan bridge on an unseasonably hot September day. Everyone else waited for the wounded.
Very few of the injured came to Brooklyn Hospital. Except for a few who were rescued in the first hour, survivors were either well enough to walk away, or they were not survivors. It is the terrible waiting, the sense that all our training and all our machines can do nothing to help the thousands still in the wreckage, waiting and doing nothing while our city and our world changed into something we would not recognize when we emerged from the basement ED.
Emerge we did, later that day. The world, indeed, changed; the city, too. Like London six decades earlier, having lost people, it grew a soul; having lost buildings, it gained a spirit. For all New Yorkers, millions, men and women, saddened by the experience, and yet these words ring true:
“We happy few, we band of brothers…”