Through the Valley of Death

The following is a meager attempt to record the awesome occurrences that both my colleagues in Hatzalah–the emergency Jewish volunteer ambulance service for all members of the New York community–and I had experienced during our rescue efforts at the World Trade Center attack of September 11th. Of course no words can truly capture the thoughts, feelings, and emotions of that unforgettable day.

Needless to say, attempting to relive the events of September 11th is no easy experience from an emotional perspective. However, on a spiritual level, it is an obligation to record our recollections and publicly acknowledge our hakoras hatov to God for the miraculous rescue of all our Hatzalah members.
Photos courtesy of Rabbi Mechel Handler

8:48 am on September 11, 2001
A member of Hatzalah called in on his two-way radio that debris was falling out of the World Trade Center from an explosion on the top floors. At the time, I was sitting next to the base station in the Hatzalah office in Brooklyn. Remembering the previous World Trade Center bombing eight years earlier, and recalling the danger that my dear friend Shimmy Beigeleisen, of blessed memory, was in during that first bombing, and the tale of his narrow escape from the fire, I realized the extent of the potential catastrophe at hand, and immediately called Heshy Jacob and David Shipper, Manhattan Hatzalah coordinators, to head over to the World Trade Center for scene coordination.

Following confirmation that an airplane hit the World Trade Center and that 911 was down and people couldn’t reach the 911 operators, we realized the extreme severity of the matter and the Hatzalah dispatcher was instructed to send a dozen ambulances to the scene; one from each of the neighboring branches of Hatzalah. One of Hatzalah’s closest ambulances to the scene, stationed on Wall Street, was actually the very first ambulance to arrive at the World Trade Center site. Our dispatcher also sent over numerous paramedics and doctors, as well as Hatzalah’s emergency mobile command center.

I immediately jumped into the car, sirens blaring, and headed toward Manhattan. It was a crystal clear day and as I got to the Gowanus Expressway, right before the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the traffic came to a complete halt. People were getting out of their cars and watching in disbelief as the North Tower went up in flames. It was a horrific sight, and even more strange and unbelievable was watching the skyline covered with tens of thousands of pieces of paper pouring out the upper offices of the World Trade Center and spreading like snow across the sky.

Since traffic had come to a halt, I waited for the HOV lane (for emergency vehicles) to open when all of a sudden, out of the clear blue sky, we watched in horror as the second Boeing 767 crashed into the South Tower, and the building burst into a huge ball of flame with heavy clouds of smoke. Although I saw it with my very eyes, I could not believe what I was seeing. It made absolutely no sense. I was in a total state of confusion and denial. I had no idea that the first plane that hit the tower was anything more than a fluke accident.

Hatzalah members on 9/11. Rabbi Mechel Handler, administrator of Chevrah Hatzalah in New York; Dr. Richy Friedman, medical director; Rabbi Edgar Gluck, statewide coordinator; Moshe Wulliger, coordinator; and Steve Zakheim, paramedic.

When I saw the second tower burst into flames, I couldn’t hold myself back from crying. I was alone in the car and I couldn’t come to grips with the horrible realization that thousands of people would die from this terrible catastrophe. I asked the Almighty to have mercy. Before I had a chance to pull myself together, the tunnel lane opened up and within two minutes I was in Manhattan, only two blocks away from the burning Twin Towers. I quickly parked my car (which was later bombarded and destroyed by the falling debris) and ran up West Street toward the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Upon arriving at the scene, we saw hundreds of people pouring out of the Twin Towers. They were running for their lives. They were screaming. They were crying. They had terror and fear written on their faces. There were little fires erupting all over the place.

Between the onset of the attack at 8:48 am and the South Tower building collapse at 9:59 am, Hatzalah transported close to one hundred and forty patients to local hospitals. Their conditions ranged from cardiac arrest to all degrees of burns, fractures, internal bleeding, and smoke inhalation. Our ambulances were loaded up with four to six patients per vehicle. Besides the transports, numerous walking wounded were treated, supported, and directed away from the area by Hatzalah personnel.

We set up a staging area for our ambulances and emergency vehicles at the corner of South End Avenue and Liberty Street, which was about two hundred feet from the South Tower; Hatzalah was the primary agency covering the south and west side World Trade Center complex. We were anticipating thousands of casualties.

Scene safety for the emergency medical personnel and doctors was our first responsibility. Chief Robert A. McCracken, the highest ranking EMS chief of the Fire Department of New York, suggested that we redirect most of the Hatzalah ambulances from the corner of Liberty Street that faces the South Tower to a safer spot on South End Avenue. He had suspected that the top of the North Tower might topple over, so we stationed the Hatzalah ambulances facing south on South End Avenue between a row of buildings. Who could have dreamt that the Twin Towers would collapse entirely?

We then began a head count of all Hatzalah personnel at the scene, listing all the EMT’s, paramedics, and doctors and their locations. At the same time, we designated a triage and treatment station. Hatzalah members were instructed to wear vests and helmets. Debris had been falling from the building, and the scene was not safe. However, there were not enough helmets to go around. We instructed Hatzalah members not to enter the Twin Towers, since they were not protected or outfitted with SCBAs (self-contained breathing apparatus) and personal protective clothing for hazardous environments.

While we were setting up the triage area, a police officer whispered to me that he just got a report that the Pentagon was hit. Until this moment, we were all too preoccupied and overwhelmed with our massive rescue efforts to digest what was happening. This was actually the first time I realized that this was no accident and that America was in fact under attack. The feeling at the moment was one of total disbelief and horror.

We then looked up and noticed that the dots falling out of the top of the World Trade Center one after another were actually people jumping out of the buildings. Some were holding hands while falling to their deaths. We couldn’t bear looking at people jumping to their death and were forced to turn away in tears and disbelief.

The scene was like a war zone, with debris, glass, and bodies all over the place. With a catastrophe of this enormous magnitude, we guessed that there would inevitably be thousands of casualties and deaths. With very heavy and sad hearts, we felt totally helpless.

I was heading towards the EMS emergency command post inside the World Trade Center to submit to the incident commander our list Hatzalah’s personnel, resources and their locations, when I met up with another Hatzalah coordinator on West Street and he pointed out where some additional members were. Had the tower come down five minutes later, I would have been buried inside the building.

All of a sudden we heard the loudest and most powerful sound in our lives. It was clearly the sound of death.
A Hatzalah coordinator was showing me where the balance of the Hatzalah personnel were, when all of a sudden we heard the loudest and most powerful sound in our lives. There was a tremendous long-lasting roar that continued to get louder and louder. It sounded like a volcanic eruption. The crashing of the South Tower felt like an avalanche coming down, with the ground shaking like an earthquake and the one hundred and ten floors of debris caving in. It was clearly the sound of death. That deafening and horrifying sound still rings in my head three times a day, during the blessing of gratitude in Shemoneh Esrei and is a memory that I am sure I will never forget.

We ran for our lives, most of us running for cover inside the adjoining buildings. Everyone scattered in different directions. While I was running, heavy shrapnel, glass, beams and debris were bombarding me.

We later discovered that many firefighters and rescuers were killed by heavy metal “I beams” and falling debris and glass that descended upon them in the very same area where we had been standing. The Hatzalah coordinator I was talking to moments before the building collapsed ended up with sixty stitches in his head and many broken bones. Another firefighter, who was next to one of our members, was sliced in half by a plate of glass, and yet another firefighter was killed in the driver’s seat of his fire truck by a falling brick. Many other firefighters and rescue workers died from suffocation, buried under the heavy ash and debris.

I ran as fast as I could, and finally reached Hatzalah’s command post at the corner of South End Street, where I found the place totally deserted. I could barely see with all the smoke and debris pouring down on my helmet. There were steel pillars falling all around me and any one of them could have easily flattened me to pieces. Being all by myself with the world coming down on my head, I panicked and started screaming at the top of my lungs. I was standing in a few feet of pulverized dust, rocks, and debris. A Hatzalah member yelled back for me to quickly take cover in the ambulance. I didn’t think that it was smart to take shelter in an ambulance while the World Trade Center was coming down, but with little time to think, I jumped into the ambulance. In retrospect, I am certain that I would not have survived the continued bombardment had I remained outside much longer.

I thought that my life would be over in a matter of moments.
As I heard and felt the severe pounding on the roof of the ambulance, I quickly dropped to the floor. I knew it was futile trying to take cover from a building about to crush us. In those few seconds, while waiting for the building to collapse on us, I thought that my life would be over in a matter of moments. I remained calm and did not panic. I was at peace with myself and ready to meet my Master in Heaven, but saddened that I wasn’t granted the years to accomplish what I had strived for. I wished that I would be granted a few more minutes to make the proper preparations to leave this world. I quickly recited the Shema in tears, and my friend in the ambulance, Yidel Guttman, was crying to God to have mercy.

With the side door still open, rubble started building up at my feet, threatening to bury me alive. At the same time, the roof was about to collapse on me from the crashing of the debris above. My struggle to survive though did not end there. My lungs suddenly filled with asbestos and ground glass (which I coughed up for days). I was literally suffocating and it was the most horrifying experience in my life. Being deprived of oxygen, my head started getting weaker and I felt that I was about to die. I couldn’t think. I began to panic. I was gasping for a last breath, but with every breath more debris would pour into my lungs, making it even harder to breathe. Suddenly, I noticed an oxygen tank on the floor, and after quickly donning the mask, I had some immediate relief and was able to regain some composure. I started imagining how devastating it would be for me to leave my wife and our eight beautiful children. I pictured the heart-rending image of my innocent little boys reciting Kaddish in shul for me, and my heart literally went out for them. But something strange happened. I didn’t die. I was still alive.

Even though I didn’t believe for a second that I had a chance to make it out alive, for my family’s sake, I couldn’t just sit still. I pushed away the debris from my feet, and managed to slide myself out of the side door of the ambulance. It was pitch black outside, whereas not too long before it was bright daylight. I was convinced that we were caved in and that no one in the world (if anyone out there was left alive) would ever find us before we died from lack of oxygen. I pictured the entire World Trade Center caved in on top of us.

It seemed like the world had ended. The silence was deafening.
At this point there was no more roaring thunderous sound and there was no more pelting by debris. It seemed like the world had ended. The silence was deafening. It was a most eerie feeling. We were later told that the ash and debris was so thick that the sound waves were unable to pass through.

After managing to push aside the debris blocking the side door of the vehicle and sliding out of the ambulance, I felt solid ground beneath me and stood up on my feet. I was never happier to feel ground under my feet.

I called out to my friend in the ambulance to crawl out and follow me. After blindly walking step by step, I felt southward along the wall until I passed a glass door of a store. Inside there was a light on, and I saw between ten to twenty frightened people who seemed to be trapped inside the building. I used my oxygen tank to smash through the door. I instructed the people, who were grateful to be rescued, to follow me. Eventually we made some more turns and ended up at another corner further south. How can I possibly describe the feeling of relief that we were no longer trapped and caved in under a building? With the clear benevolence of the Master of the World, our lives were spared. We survived. I couldn’t believe it. “Hodu laShem ki tov,” “Give thanks to Hashem, for He is good . . . .”

Ground Zero was just that. Zero. No life, no sound. No people. No cameras. No rescuers. No nothing. Just a pile of rubble and hundreds of destroyed and mangled fire trucks, burned police cars, and destroyed ambulances. The destruction was incomprehensible. There were huge pillars of smoke coming out of what was once the Twin Towers that continued for days. There were body parts all over the street. When looking at the sheer size of the mangled metal pillars and frames, some of them ten to fifteen feet long and weighing tons, surrounding our ambulances, we realized that there could never be a logical explanation for our survival. Our survival was a true open miracle.

Ultimately, we discovered that all of the Hatzalah members had survived and were accounted for. When considering our location near the South Tower at the time of the collapse, with some of us actually on West Street right in front of the building, we knew that the Hand of God had picked us out from the fiery furnace and miraculously saved our lives.

Rabbi Mechel Handler is the administrator of Chevrah Hatzalah in New York.

This article was featured in the Fall 2011 issue of Jewish Action.
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