On Wednesday, September
12, I was witness to the greatest argument against war the North American Left
has ever had
I’ve never liked New
York City. I’ve only gone there for the most compelling of reasons. When I
awoke to the horrifying news of the incidents there on Tuesday morning —
still occurring, unbeknownst to anyone — I already knew I would be going
again. As a certified emergency medical technician, and a radical activist
with street experience in mass casualty scenarios (through my involvement in
the little-known field called "action medical"), it wasn’t a matter of
weighing options. The only questions were how? and how soon
I have told my story in
great detail elsewhere. It isn’t a story about my own heroism. It isn’t a
story about life-threatening or life-saving adventure. I wish it were. If I’d
had any opportunity for heroism, any opportunity to save lives, that would
mean so too did thousands of others. We already know thousands of lives were
saved. My story begins at a point when there was little remaining success in
such endeavors. It is a story about tragedy.
My partner, Rachel, and I
spent most of the day Wednesday working in the decontamination area at St.
Vincent’s Trauma Center, one of the main hospitals where blast victims and
injured rescuers had been and were being taken. We had the opportunity to meet
dozens of emergency workers, and treated several of them for minor injuries
and contamination resulting from their participation in this most massive of
What we did not see is even
more depressing. Our job was to strip and scrub victims when they were first
brought in, so the soot they’d arrive covered in would not contaminate the
rest of the hospital., then deliver them to the ER. Unfortunately, despite
rumors (even over official channels), these rescued victims simply weren’t
showing up. While the rest of the world was hoping and praying more rescues
would be made, it was becoming ominously obvious at St. Vincent’s that there
would quite simply be few more survivors, if any.
In all, I would meet and
talk to dozens of EMTs, hospital staff, firefighters, and other emergency
workers. There was by now more exhaustion than dust in the air. Both tasted
identical. One doctor who sat down near us was literally surprised by how it
felt to actually sit down. It had been 24 hours, he announced, since he hadn’t
had his full weight on his feet. One nurse complained that her feet were so
sore she was having trouble standing, much less walking — I could only
What I didn’t hear, at all,
were emergency workers of any kind clamoring for retaliation or war. In fact,
it occurs to me that one of the only groups of people in this country which
isn’t demanding vengeance are the very people tasked with taking care of
survivors, and recovering the thousands of bodies left in the mess.
Among rescue and medical
personnel in New York, the focus was on saving lives, not on taking more. This
is certainly due in part to the necessity of staying focused on the job at
hand, even during much-needed breaks. However, I think this restraint is also
being shown because few people involved in the rescue efforts can bring
themselves to wish upon others what they are currently going through.
That night, we milled around
for a while, checking in with some EMTs to see how they were holding up. We
actually engaged in a very normal, generic medical conversation with one EMT.
Anything for a distraction…
It was during such a
conversation that Senator Chuck Schumer passed by us while we sat on the steps
to the ER. He stopped and turned to us. "I know what you’ve all been doing,"
he said. "You’re all heroes." Four or five of us just stared back at him. I’m
not sure about our newfound friends, but Rachel, Meredith and I didn’t feel
like heroes. It was odd to be referred to as such. We didn’t know what to say.
No one spoke. He didn’t seem to mind. He turned and left.
After a little discussion,
and a few cups of coffee handed over by smiling volunteers, we decided to go
deeper into the security zones with us. We headed down on foot. We wouldn’t
need to consult a map — smoke still rising skyward marked our heading for us.
It was well over a mile to
Ground Zero. Halfway there, a police officer put us in a DPW truck and told
the drivers to deliver us to the site. I was no longer surprised that, for
this moment in time, not only were cops uninterested in bashing my head, they
would go out of their way to help us try to be helpful. The oddities were
piling up with the rubble. Many of them were welcome.
What we found at The Site
was an incredible scene. A light grey ash was met by reflections and glares of
floodlights overhead, giving every still surface the appearance of having been
lightly snowed upon. Where water from fire hoses or water main leaks had come
in contact with this substance, it created small pools that resembled slush. I
almost shivered by association, but alas we had had beautiful weather all day,
and it remained quite warm even after dark. In fact, it felt oddly warmer near
the site than it had at the hospital.
Here the National Guard
presence was quite obvious. We hadn’t seen many Guardsmen before arriving at
The Site. After asking around, we made our way to a place where dozens of
ambulances were stationed in front of a school building. Here again we had the
sense of being useless. Not because we weren’t official or connected or
skilled enough to help — but because there was simply nothing for EMS to do.
Few if any survivors were being recovered. The scene was a grim convention of
chauffeurs awaiting passengers who were simply not going to arrive.
It was at The Site that the
extent of this tragedy finally began to settle in on me. Until then, as for
most people in the country and around the world, this monumental event had
been a story, just like any other major piece of news. Granted, I had come all
this way, expecting to experience the tragedy for myself, but it was difficult
to accept that out of so many thousands of people known to have been in or
around the buildings, so few were going to emerge. EMS workers milled about
everywhere, attempting to ignore the fact that we were being ignored by those
excavating the site, who simply didn’t require our specialized assistance.
Fire crews marched into the
misty air floating over the rubble, toward the flood lights and away from us.
I wanted to follow them, but there was a limit to where my EMT credentials
would allow me access. Most of what they were pulling out was concrete. That
which was organic was far more likely to be a corpse or a body part than a
living human being.
One of the things I noticed
about Ground Zero was that pretty much the only people not wearing respirators
or masks of some kind were the firefighters themselves. Nearly all EMS,
National Guard and police personnel were covering their faces for protection
from the dust. It was no secret that all sorts of horrible chemicals and
substances were floating around in all that particulate debris. Yet almost
none of the firefighters seemed to be wearing respiratory protection.
After thinking long and hard
about that, I decided it might well be a demonstration of solidarity for their
brethren trapped below. All day one got the impression that, for the
firefighters, the sense of urgency was higher than for most everyone else.
They all knew people buried beneath the rubble. Additionally, they identified
with them very strongly. It reminded me of the bond among action medics, and
the way I’ve seen my fellow action medics behave in the streets when medics
were injured or in trouble.
We wandered into the command
center — the school cafeteria — and made one last attempt to get involved
through official channels. There the EMS dispatch officer expressed more
gratitude, but explained that "freelance EMS people" were being told to go
home. He saw our St. Vincent’s security passes and inquired about the status
there. I knew he didn’t want to know "how many" patients were being brought
in, like everyone else did. He knew that number all too well. We just told him
St. Vincent’s was running smoothly, and he seemed glad to hear it.
I sat down at a table, and
noticed a piece of paper with a color photo attached to it. The picture was of
a young woman in her early twenties. It had her name and other identifying
information on it. Her family had managed to pass it along this far. She was
missing. And like everyone else who was missing, she was presumed dead.
We didn’t want to leave New
York, but staying there had become too painful for me. Being unable to help
kept me acutely aware of just how terrible this tragedy was. I didn’t think I
could stand it anymore.
The drive home was as fast
as the drive down. It was more silent, though. We alternated between listening
to the news — which we’d hardly done all day — and listening to music CDs. A
million thoughts stewed around in my head. It felt good to have been able to
do something, but in context, it seemed we’d done almost nothing at all. For
medics, there simply wasn’t enough to be done.
We listened to irate voices
on the news, trying to reconcile the attitudes of those calling for vengeful
murder, with those rescue workers struggling for life. This new wave of
bloodlust, it occurred to me, is more a result of feeling helpless, than of
anything rational or reasonable.
When we cry out for
violence, we are indeed asking our leaders to do to other civilians and rescue
workers precisely what has happened to us here. Let us use great caution and
prudence in our solutions to this horror. We owe that to our counterparts the
world over — people who by no means deserve to suffer the way we are now.
I think most people, having
seen what I just have, would be hesitant to call for an expansion of this
horror. Our country’s first-hand experience with the reality of warlike
violence will prove, in the end, our best leverage against engaging in yet
another senseless bloodbath. Now that we have felt the pain our nation has
continually and relentlessly dealt other nations, we have a unique opportunity
to learn the lessons of the images and ravages of war even before we start.
[Brian Dominick is a street
first aid instructor and an active street medic, affiliated with the NorthEast
Action Medics Association (NEAMA) and the Radical Emergency Squad (RESQ).
Besides being a medic, Brian is a political commentator, a website
developer/editor for ZNet (www.zmag.org),
and a community activist.]