Desperately seeking survivors
By SHAWN MCCARTHY
Thursday, September 13, 2001
NEW YORK -- It was Manhattan's avenue of faint hope.
The day after the catastrophic attack on the World Trade Center, families and friends of victims were involved in a grim missing persons' search at hospitals all along First Avenue.
Outside the Manhattan Veterans Administration Hospital, George Sayegh produced a grainy photocopied picture of his sister, Jacquiline, who was a hostess in the Window on the World restaurant on the 106th floor of the New York landmark.
Sayegh said he began searching for his 34-year-old sister Tuesday afternoon and, after a fruitless evening, resumed amid mounting anxiety. He and his brother-in-law, Howard Duggan -- both with red-rimmed eyes -- had begun their search at the VA hospital and were heading to Bellevue Medical Center and the New York University Medical Center, all situated along First Avenue.
Along the way, they distributed Jacquiline's photo and a fact sheet. In case she was not recognizable from the photo, it mentioned she was wearing a diamond engagement ring, a Bulova watch and diamond stud earrings.
"We're trying to keep up hope, that's all you can hang on to," Sayegh said.
The young men were joined by scores of friends and family of other missing people, checking hospitals in a desperate search for loved ones. Searchers lined up to speak to local television reporters, displaying photos of the missing in hopes of gleaning some information about them.
Several complained about their inability to reach hospital officials, about being shunted from hospital to hospital, about the lack of a centralized information system.
Hee Soo Kang said she had phoned several hospitals looking for a friend, but had been unable to reach anyone. She tried to fax information and a picture of Myoung Woo Lee, a tax auditor with New York State, but the numbers were busy.
"It's very frustrating," Kang said. "We're still praying, but we just don't know."
Late yesterday, authorities were still not prepared to provide an estimate of the death toll from the attack, though it is expected to be several thousand people. But hospital officials said there were relatively few victims who had been admitted to hospital and remained unidentified.
New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani acknowledged the frustration of those who were having trouble getting information on missing family and friends.
"I apologize to the families of people who are lost," Giuliani said. "We don't have the answers to all their questions yet."
He noted that four people had been taken alive out of the rubble by late yesterday afternoon, and hoped that there would be more.
"This is the situation we will be living with for a while," the mayor said. "We'll only know if we've saved someone or recovered their body when it happens."
On First Avenue, Manuel Rodriquez was searching for his fiancée's brother, Emilio Ortiz, who worked for an import-export firm on the 90th floor of the World Trade Center.
"Somebody he worked with called [immediately after the airliner slammed into the building] and said Emilio was all right," Rodriquez said. "But last night, neither one of them showed up at home."
He said he fears that Ortiz and his co-worker had initially escaped the flaming building, only to be buried in the rubble when it collapsed. But Rodriquez had not begun touring the morgues to identify his friend from the 55 bodies that had been recovered by yesterday afternoon.
"That's the last thing you lose, is hope," he said.
Debbie Flynn, a 29-year-old advertising writer, was one of a group of family and friends looking for Sean Lugano, a stockbroker who worked on one of the top floors of the twin towers.
"We haven't heard anything. We're just hoping and praying he got out okay," she said. "He's the greatest guy. If anyone in the world would get down, he would."
Clearly, searchers were taking some hope from the confusion that enveloped the unprecedented medical emergency response needed to cope not only with the workers in the towers but also with the firefighters and police who were injured or suffering from smoke and dust inhalation.
Survivors and injured rescuers were sent to more than 50 hospitals in the city, plus dozens more in neighbouring New Jersey and Connecticut.
The medical response is being managed by the city's Emergency Medical Systems, part of the city's Office of Emergency Management, with representatives from the hospitals themselves.
Dr. Gregg Husk, chairman of emergency medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center, said his hospital treated more than 200 people directly related to the disaster yesterday, more than the average number of people it treats on a given day.
Of those 200, only 18 were admitted. The rest were treated for inhalation of smoke or concrete dust, eye irritations or abrasions and released.
Dr. Husk said the hospitals were coping with the additional load, largely because medical staff have been volunteering to work around the clock.
"I personally went home to get some rest after working 12 hours [Tuesday] and sat down to watch the television and realized I did not want to be watching television," he said. "I found it far more disturbing to be watching rather than helping people the way I was during the day." He added that his hospital has had to scramble for certain medical supplies, such as tetanus toxoid, but has not suffered shortages. Blood supplies are plentiful as New Yorkers, eager to pitch in, line up to donate blood.