To highlight the diversity and previously unimaginable undertaking of the 9/11 rescue and recovery community, we've created the ongoing Q&A series "In Their Own Voices." This installment features Gary Smiley, an FDNY paramedic on 9/11.
Where were you on 9/11?
I was working overtime with the New York City Fire Department as a paramedic. It was my buddy’s birthday, so I took his morning shift before I was supposed to work in the afternoon. I was stationed in lower Brooklyn, and when the first plane hit the North Tower, I was at the firehouse, at the base of Manhattan Bridge.
I was on a specialty unit as a hazardous materials paramedic, and I’d been with FDNY for 16 years. We would typically listen to the special operations divisions radio of the NYPD. We heard a police officer screaming that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I remember going over the Brooklyn Bridge, and you could already see the plume of smoke coming out of the North Tower, and I looked at the guy that was sitting next to me, and said, “That’s not a small plane.”
I was there in 1993 for the first attack on the World Trade Center site, so it was a flashback to seeing thousands of people in the streets with blackened faces. On the morning of September 11th, people were fleeing and when we arrived, there were already people who were on the street and injured. I was one of the senior guys there, so I told everyone, “Go to the far side of the street, set up triage, and start bringing these injured people there.” A woman had come out of the atrium, and she was horrifically injured. She was stumbling. I grabbed her, picked her up, and started carrying her across Church Street Within about 10 seconds she was screaming, “Plane, plane, plane!” I said to her, “Yeah, a plane hit the building.” What I didn’t realize was that she saw the second plane. I felt the explosion and the jet fuel. I threw her on the ground, and I threw myself on top of her, and that’s when I got burned on my back.
I made my way to West Street, that is the pre-planned staging area for any incident at the World Trade Center complex for the FDNY. That’s where it was in ’93. We parked and joined about 50 FDNY members waiting for orders. They said, “We need paramedics for triage in the lobby of the South Tower.” We started walking down West Street, and that’s when we saw everybody running towards us as the South Tower started to collapse. I ended up in the lobby of the American Express building in the atrium and then the radios started working again.
I heard my two buddies that were on another unit, issuing a mayday they were trapped. I had no idea where they were, but I had to go find them. I gathered up a portable stretcher and my medical bag. At that point West Street was a pile of rubble. I made it to the north pedestrian bridge when I heard a crack. It was the antenna of the North Tower as the building came down. I had maybe half a second to start running. The implosion of the building blew me down West Street and underneath one of the vehicles. I was shielded from most of the building debris, but the ambulance ended up squishing me.
A few hours later, I started digging myself out when I woke up. I didn’t realize how injured I was at the time. Another firefighter had self-extricated himself, and we found each other, and we made our way out of the collapse zone to a deli. There were dozens of cops and firefighters and paramedics, and everybody was caked in concrete. It was in your mouth, it was in your eyes, you couldn’t breathe. It was hot, our skin was burnt, every part of exposed skin was burnt.
I ended up having crush syndrome. The ambulance that I was under was squishing me from the waist down. The lower part of my body was not getting much oxygen because it wasn’t getting blood flow. When you take the weight off, that blood flow returns to the rest of the body. Since it hasn’t been oxygenated, it has a lot of lactic acid in it, and it causes organ failure. My organs began to fail later in the evening. At around 10 o’clock at night, I collapsed. I was in complete kidney failure. I was rushed to the Long Island College Hospital and they saved my life.
What role did you play in the rescue, recovery, and relief efforts?
After I was discharged a week later, I wanted to go back to the Trade Center the next day, but because of my injuries, the job wouldn’t allow it. I was put on "candle duty" - monitoring the stations in downtown Brooklyn because people were dropping off so many candles to pay their respects. I met with firefighters and EMTs, and we would just cry, because so many of their colleagues – friends and family - were missing. Two of the guys from my station were missing. Around the beginning of October, I was cleared to go back to work and was assigned to the Trade Center. I was assigned as relief for paramedics and EMTs ensuring we were always available to assist. Often, we were administering IVs and taking care of the injured. I was there for 480 hours.