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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

'We need blood'
Thursday, September 13, 2001

NEW YORK -- The lineups trailed a city block, with hundreds of weary people, their eyes swollen and red-rimmed, sought word about whether their daughters, wives, brothers and sisters were alive.

One of them was Robert Harris, a looming, muscled African American who clutched a photograph of his daughter, 22-year-old Aisha. In it, she is wearing a pastel sundress and smiling, looking as if the best of life has yet to come. "I'm feeling terrible," Harris said as he wept outside a school building designated for those who want to find out about their relatives. "But I'm trying to be strong and focused. I have to find out what happened."

Part of the story he already knows: He said "goodbye" to his daughter in what he thought was to be an ordinary, humdrum day, before she set off for her telecommunications job on Tuesday on the 84th floor of the World Trade Center's Tower 1.

The world knows the rest of the story: Two hijacked planes crashed and turned two towers of the centre into a blazing inferno, before reducing it to rubble in the biggest terrorist attack ever to hit the United States. "I thought it was an ordinary day. If I'd known, I would have told her not to go to work, but you can't know something like this is going to happen," the 49-year-old Harris said.

He and hundreds of others of New Yorkers were queued outside the New School University building near Greenwich Village, where the names of those who have been admitted to the area's hospitals have been tabulated. "If they don't have her name down here, I am going to have to go to the morgue," Harris said. "I know that is my next stop."

But Eva Narula won't mention death when she talks about her 22-year-old sister, Manika, who was working on the 101st floor of Tower 1 of the World Trade Center.

"Why don't they do something? We can't find anything out," she said frantically, her eyes swollen and red. "I haven't been able to find out anything."

Narula has no plans to go to the makeshift morgue; she believes that, hope against hope, her sister might be excavated from the rubble of the centre.

So does Jenn Simon, whose father Arthur and brother Kenny were both working at the World Trade Center at the time of the terrorist attack. Deep in the line at about number 70, she waits patiently, like others, holding photographs, smudged with thumbprints and damp with sweat.

"I'm just so in shock," Simon said, pointing to photographs of her brother and father.

The searchers have formed their own makeshift vigil, hoping and praying that their loved ones will be dug out of the rubble, grasping at any rumour or gossip that some have called through the debris on cellphones.

A short distance from where Simon stands are volunteers who have set up a table with soft drinks, sandwiches and cookies for those who are waiting, though most wave their hands at the offers, unable to think of food.

Some New Yorkers packed sandwiches, cookies and water to bring to the hospitals, and others donated clothes packed in plastic bags. Even actress Kim Raver, who plays a paramedic on the television series Third Watch, showed up at Saint Vincent's Hospital and Medical Center with sandwiches for staff.

Blood donors formed a long queue outside of Saint Vincent's hospital in Manhattan, bearing a hot, sunny day, some spending hours waiting to make a donation that they thought might help. At the height of the rush, there were 800 people waiting to donate blood on Tuesday and yesterday.

"The city is in crisis and we need blood," said Mark Ackermann, a spokesman for Saint Vincent's. But the blood-donor clinics extended all over Manhattan and Long Island. Not only did doctors from Europe at a conference here volunteer to help, but so did Vietnam War veterans.

The area around Greenwich Village would normally be bustling with fashionable, hip New Yorkers wanting to celebrate one of the last beautiful, hot days of summer at a café with a drink or lunch. Others would be busily shuttling from place to place during their busy workdays.

But yesterday, streets were blocked and grief-stricken people openly cried, wandering the closed-off streets looking for answers, handing out photocopies of their loved ones to strangers, as if they are, somehow, merely lost and only need to be found again.

Others shuttled between the New School, where word on some patients was given out, to Saint Vincent's in Manhattan, the closest trauma centre to the blast, which has treated about 400 patients since Tuesday.

Dr. Anthony Gagliardi, medical director of Saint Vincent's, said he first heard about the blast when a surgeon he knows ran into the hospital with a grisly report. The surgeon, whom he refused to identify, said the World Trade Center had exploded. He had made it out alive by frantically running down 49 floors of steps, next to two people who were on fire.

"I think if you saw this happen in a movie, you'd say the movie was interesting but unbelievable," Gagliardi said. "I don't know how you ever actually prepare for this."

But prepare they did. Only two months before, the Saint Vincent's Hospital and Medical Center staff had gone through a mock disaster as part of its routine training. Even with that training, Tuesday proved to be almost surreal.

"The drill was much less dramatic than this," Gagliardi said, adding that the hospital's stable patients were sent elsewhere so staff could be ready for trauma patients.

A Code 3 was coolly relayed on the hospital intercom, with doctors, nurses and other workers preparing themselves for what was relayed as a disaster.

But they didn't need the code to know that. Down the street, plumes of billowing smoke replaced what was one of the most noticeable parts of their skyline.

Stable patients already at Saint Vincent's were sent elsewhere, while empty rooms, units to treat patients with kidney disease and other parts of the hospital were cleared out for what staff expected would be thousands of casualties.

Victims with severe burns, crushed bones, damaged organs and massive puncture wounds were rushed in. The frantic runs down the steps even caused a few to have heart attacks.

Virtually all of them had a fine dust of concrete powder packed into the lids of their eyes, which they couldn't help but scratch, causing damage to their corneas.

Some of the injuries were horrific, with patients suffering several broken bones, crushed when they were trapped between girders. Others had severe gashes and deep wounds from falling debris.

"It was like a war zone," said Dr. Leonard Bakalchuk, an attending physician at Saint Vincent's.

Even more horrific, many nurses at the hospital are married to firefighters and police officers, and dreaded that their spouses might be wheeled into emergency.

"Sixty to 65 per cent of nurses are married to police officers or firefighters," Ackermann said. "Many do not know if their spouses are in the rubble."

Still, he said, they are handling their jobs professionally, though they are not allowed to treat relatives.

"It certainly has presented them with anxious moments," said Virginia Sweeny, vice-president and chief of nursing at Saint Vincent's. "We have received information about firefighters who have presented in our emergency department. We communicate with our staff that their loved one is in our emergency department and they have been admitted."

As of last evening, Saint Vincent's had treated more than any other hospital; its latest tally of the wounded: 449 patients had come through the hospital, of whom four died and 95 were admitted. That included 79 police and fire department officials. However, there was hopeful news as word trickled in that several people had been pulled out alive.

The hospital was ready for 1,000 patients, and hundreds of doctors and nurses volunteered to come in.

At its height, there were 500 physicians, 400 nurses and 500 volunteers at the 500-bed Saint Vincent's hospital. But by yesterday, hospital officials were telling doctors and nurses that they didn't need any more staff. In fact, they needed more patients, but they, fortunately, were not to be found in large numbers.

About two dozen doctors, wearing their traditional green scrubs and white coats, stood outside the emergency department in the hot sun, drinking water and talking among themselves throughout the day. Four gurneys with white blankets sat outside, as did five wheelchairs. One medical person was so tired of waiting that he sat in the wheelchair, looking at hundreds of reporters and hundreds more New Yorkers who stood behind barriers, patiently waiting for victims to be whisked in for medical help.

By 10 a.m. yesterday, five firefighters had been admitted, fatigued from their rescue efforts, their eyes caked with concrete dust. There was an eerie feeling among the hospital workers, who knew the low numbers of admissions could only mean that not a lot of people were being rescued from the rubble.

"We were ready for 1,000 patients because we hoped there were more survivors," Ackermann said. "We hope and pray that many more will be pulled out of the rubble."

Inside, mental health workers were talking to frantic families, some of whom had to be prepared for the inevitability that they might never see their loved ones again.

"They are anxious, but we have to help them face the likelihood that the person they love is dead," said Dr. Spencer Eth, medical director of behaviourial health services at Saint Vincent's.

Eth said it was still important to be hopeful that victims could be found alive, but families need to face the possibility that they are dead to "move the process along."


Life Goes On

Voices From After the Fall, The Facts Behind the Fear, and the preview of a new Discovery documentary filmed at Ground Zero.


(RealPlayer required)

  • Six-month Memorial for Sept. 11 - U.S. President George Bush speaks from the White House. "The terrorists will remember Sept. 11 as the day their reckoning began," he said.

  • In Canada - Relatives of Canadian victims of the World Trade Centre attacks wonder why there's no six-month memorial here at home. video reports

  • Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.
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