Interview with Bonnie Jean Giebfried
Oceanside, New York
I responded to the World Trade Center on September 11 as an EMT with Flushing Hospital Medical Center, a voluntary hospital based in Queens, which is contracted to the FDNY to provide EMS service through the 911 system. I've worked with them for a year.
I've also been a volunteer firefighter and EMT with the Oceanside Volunteer Fire Department on Long Island for a few years. My father, uncle and cousin are all in the department with me; my father and grandfather were both chiefs of the department. My cousin, Debra, was sent to the World Trade Center as one of the first EMS units assigned to the MCI (mass casualty incident), and my father was dispatched to Liberty Plaza just before 7 World Trade Center came down.
I'm 38 years old and kind of a jack-of-all-trades. I was a social worker when I had my first exposure to an MCI: I did crisis counseling with people on the scene of an Avianca crash on the north shore of Long Island about twelve years ago. Along with my family influence in the volunteer fire department, that started my interest in EMS and firefighting, plus I had first aid experience from being a lifeguard when I was younger.
On September 11, my partner, Jennifer Beckham, and I were listening to the commercial radio in our ambulance. Two DJ's were joking around (or so we thought) and said a plane -- a "small Cessna" -- had just crashed into the Twin Towers. I told Jen, "That's not funny." Then our ambulance radio started getting busy. The dispatcher started sending ambulance units, in groups of ten, into the city, using the code they use for mass casualty incidents. And we realized it was not a joke.
Our other unit, which was scheduled to get off duty at 9 a.m., would normally have responded and was actually the one dispatched. Jen and I let the dispatcher know we would handle the call, as a courtesy to let the other crew get home on time.
So, shortly before nine, when the dispatcher started doing the roll call of ambulances she was dispatching, we jumped in and said we'd take it. We knew we were going into the city and were going to be staged; that was pretty much all we knew. The staging area we were to report to was West and Vesey -- now known as "Ground Zero."
We switched our radio over to city-wide and started heading in on the Long Island Expressway, and it's clicking, because now we're seeing BLS and ALS units from our sector just in front of us as we travel towards the city. The Long Island Expressway is one of our main routes into the city, and the traffic on it was stopped dead in its tracks. The expressway normally has stop-and-go times of day, but never a dead stop. When we finally got to where we could see across to Manhattan, we could see one tower burning, and that's when we really knew. It was eerie.
At this point our adrenalin was running. We looked at each other and said, "A Cessna would not make that much smoke." (The commercial radio in our rig shuts off automatically once we go to a mass casualty dispatch, so we had no other way of getting information.) When we saw the trail of black smoke going south, we knew something else was up, more than just a small private plane hitting one of the towers.
As EMT's, you learn to overcome that initial fear. We know it's there, but we put it in the back of our head and we keep going so we can do our job. That defense mechanism everyone else has (fight/flight), we don't experience, because it somehow gets overridden.
Jen often carries a disposable camera, which is helpful on unusual incidents. She had her camera, and she snapped pictures throughout our whole ordeal. We have a record of that day, from the time we saw the first tower on fire, to the collapse of the tower that buried us, until we left Manhattan by boat later in the day.
For part of the time on the expressway, we had to cross over into the oncoming traffic lanes to make headway toward the Midtown Tunnel; they got us back onto the right side before we went through the tunnel to Manhattan. As we came out of the tunnel, the second plane hit. You'd think it would have been mass hysteria, but it wasn't. It was very surrealistically calm: just streams of people walking toward the bridge. It was organized, and it was unusually quiet.
Up to this point, we had been following an FDNY unit. We got to the Fulton Fish Market, and the FDNY unit turned off towards its assigned staging area. Jen jumped out to get directions from them, but it was too late; the unit had gone. We decided just to go towards the plume of smoke, and met up with an ambulance from another hospital whose crew we know well. We sat there on Church Street about four blocks from the towers, talking with them, staring at the towers. Debris and papers were flying everywhere, and the tower was engulfed in flames. Then an officer came over screaming that we weren't supposed to be staged there, and asked us where we were supposed to be staged.
We'd originally been sent to West and Vesey, which meant we had to take a long way around. We told the other crew "Good luck," and went back over to Broadway, down Broadway to some other street, and onto the West Side Highway from there. When we turned onto the West Side Highway, that's when we started seeing body parts. I asked Jen, "Did you see that? Those are body parts."
She said, "No, they're not."
I said, "I worked on the Avianca crash; I know what those are." Then we started seeing debris on fire, and more body parts. It was like a scene from a disaster movie. By the time a firefighter stopped us at West & Liberty, everything on the east side of us was on fire -- buildings, cars -- from the burning debris that was coming down.
There was one pedestrian bridge there, that went from the corner of the South Tower to the Financial Building, crossing over the roadway. That's where we stopped. I wanted to be under it, but the firefighter wanted us about twelve feet to the north. We got into an argument over it, but ended up parking where he wanted us, not under cover, maybe 500 yards from the southwest corner of the South Tower.
We unloaded everything we could out of the ambulance: our tech bag, oxygen, backboards, collars, and our helmets, which are the only protective equipment they give us. We got everything. The EMS commander for the FDNY, Captain Karin DeShore, was coordinating everything at West & Liberty. She yelled to us that we had to report to Captain Wells with the FDNY, on the other side of the roadway; they had some people there we needed to get out of the South Tower. So we grabbed everything and ran across past the cars were on fire -- everything around us was on fire.
We went inside the lobby of the South Tower, figuring we'd have droves of people to help, but there was no one. The only people we saw in the lobby were the fire department and the three women who needed our help.
One of the women was handicapped, and the other two were just frightened. They weren't injured, but we needed to get them out of there to safety. I told them, "You're going to do exactly what he says. When he says go, you go." The older woman was upset. I gave her my helmet and had her put it on, and told them to stay calm. The disabled woman had a fancy motorized scooter; I lifted her up off of it and put her on the stretcher. When Wells said "Go," we all ran across the street. We got all three women and the scooter out of there safely.
We still didn't have a full picture of the scene, or realize that the whole other side of the tower that we couldn't see was missing, from the impact of the plane.
After we got those people across to safety, and told them to keep moving away from the towers to a safe location, we met up with a couple of our paramedics and a student who was with them. This is when we started seeing and hearing the jumpers. When they hit, it sounded like gunshots. People were landing on the pedestrian bridge, and there was blood all over it: the blood from these innocent people was dripping from the bridge. It sent a chill down my spine.
Captain DeShore told us the falling debris was getting too close, and we had to move back. There was a little grassy hill back a bit, so we moved towards it. We were talking with our paramedics and just staring, because that's all we could dowhile we waited for our next assignment, staring at the towers just burning and burning, and the people jumping to their deaths. Captain DeShore kept telling us to back up, back up. If it wasn't for her and what she did, all of us in that section would be dead.
Jen wanted to go back and get her cigarettes. I screamed at her, "Did you hear what the captain said? No going back to your ambulances!" She got very angry at me. I decided I ought to apologize; we were all on edge. As I turned to go apologize to her, a ball of fire came at us. I threw Jen in front of me, and we all ran, with the debris rolling towards us. We ran up the grass and saw a little alcove in the Financial Building that we thought was an entrance. But it wasn't; it was just the design of the building, and that became our tomb where we got buried under tons of debris.
There were EMS and FDNY and police there, all buried toegether under all the debris. The air, what little there was, was superheated and full of dust. I took what I was sure would be my last breath thinking, "Take care of my family; take care of everyone I love." Then I heard "pop, pop, pop." One of the police officers had managed to get to his firearm, and shot out the window in the alcove. The window broke open, and suddenly and there was air. We all started breaking the two thick panes of glass so we could get through into the lobby.
When we got into the lobby, everyone scattered, trying to find their way out. We didn't know where we were in the building, and it was dark beyond belief; you could hardly see in front of you. Jen screamed my name, and I screamed back that I was there. We were both scared and shaken. Jen said we were going to die, and I said "Shut up, we're going to find a way out of here!"
We all threw up after we came out from being buried, because whatever came at us, that's what we swallowed. God knows what we swallowed: pulverized trees, cars, parts of the building. It was hard to tell, and we'll never know.
We finally got out of the building and went into a nearby deli. We had no idea the whole tower had collapsed and was gone; we just figured the top of it had blown off. My eyes were burning, and Jen flushed them out. People were coming out of nowhere and we spent maybe a half hour in the deli, triaging them. They had injuries like broken arms, abrasions, contusions, and difficulty breathing. Everyone's eyes were burning. We'd treat them and tell the person just to start walking away from the buildings. Jen used the phone at the deli to call home and tell them we were alive, and ask them to call everyone else so they wouldn't worry. Then we decided maybe we shouldn't be in there, like whatever had blown up might blow up again. There was a medical van nearby, and we went over to it to get more supplies.
As we left the van, the ground started shaking again -- I remember the shaking and how it felt; Jen remembers the awful noise -- I said, "Oh my God, here it goes again!" We dropped everything and ran into an underground parking garage. The debris started coming at us again; we didn't even know where all this debris was coming from. I jumped on Jen to try to shelter her again; I felt bad, because she's all of 150 pounds, and I weighed about 200 pounds at that time.
The debris settled a bit, and Jen pulled her flashlight out; I didn't even know where mine was at this point. We couldn't see three feet in front of us. People around us were calling out, "Is anyone here?", and we called to them to move towards our voices. We met up with a police officer and four other people. We kicked the debris out from the front of the garage. The police officer said we had to go towards the water; I said to myself, "I just came out from a parking garage; like I know where the water is!"
Jen and I saw some of our supplies in the debris, so we started gathering them. I heard someone crying near me; it was a woman from MetroCare,a private ambulance company. I got hold of her hand and told her to come with us. The police officer pointed us in the right direction, and we finally reached the water. This was the first time we'd seen the light of day and breathed fresh air since the first tower came down.
We set up a makeshift triage area and started treating anyone who came towards us. More resources were arriving: a fireboat pulled up along the seawall, came over, and anyone who was an emergency, we sent onto the boat. All kinds of boats -- fishing boats, the Circle Line cruise boats -- were coming over and picking up people left and right to take them out of Manhattan, taking them anywhere.
In the midst of all that was going on, I began to feel ill. My breathing had gotten very bad. Jen told me, "You really don't look good,. You look pale," which was funny, because we were both covered with thick white dust. I was getting very weak, and she told me to sit down. She managed to get some Albuteral, because I was having the first of what would end up being three asthma attacks.
Chief Browne of the FDNY came over to us and said we were being redeployed to the North Cove Marina. He and Jen tried to get me to get onto the boat, but I refused: I said, "If my partner isn't leaving, then I'm not. I'll be okay." We found one of those golf-cart things they use to pick up trash cans, and loaded all our equipment. Jen hopped on to drive, and a firefighter also got on with us. Chief Browne and I introduced ourselves, and started talking about our families and where we were from.
When we got to the marina, we were told there was a threat of an explosion from a gas leak. We realized it was time to go. Jen would not leave without Chief Browne, and he got on the boat with us. The boat was evacuating people across to New Jersey; I have no sense of direction, and thought it was headed to Sheepshead Bay on Long Island. I thought, "I'm halfway home."
The Albuteral treatment hadn't broken my asthma attack, and I was starting to have another attack as the boat left the marina. Jen said, "There's no oxygen on board: just keep on breathing." To the left of me, the city's burning under this thick black cloud, and I'm supposed to open up my chest and relax.
When we reached New Jersey, I could hardly stand up to get off the boat. Two men grabbed me under the arms and brought me up the walkway, where an ambulance crew took me to their unit. Jen screamed at them, "Don't give her anything! She's highly allergic to many medications!" Which is true, and it saved my life. They gave me another Albuteral treatment, and finally had to start an IV and give me Solu-Medrol to help stop the chest pain and the asthma attack. It was very scary: not being able to breathe is no joke!
We were taken to Bayonne Hospital; I had no idea where Bayonne was. When the ER team started to triage me, I told them I had to go to the bathroom. They wanted to catheterize me instead of letting me use the restroom; I told them, "Over my dead body!" Jen told them, "We triaged people, we got blown up, we got buried alive. She's been waiting to go to the bathroom since 8 o'clock this morning, and she's going to go to the bathroom!" She grabbed me and helped me to the bathroom.
After we were triaged, we were sent to a room with other patients. You could hear the sirens, the helicopters, and the jet fighters. The TV was own, with the updates of what was happening. I saw our ambulance, buried and crushed. We watched the collapse over and over again on the television, and it still didn't dawn on us that that was had happened to us. I was in shock. The nurses tried to keep me and Jen separated, but we managed to stay together. All I had was the clothes on my back and my partner; I didn't want to lose anything.
They were going to release Jen to go home, but wanted to keep me for observation. I told them if she went, I was going, too, and I would just walk out of there naked if I had to. I convinced them to let me go. I was wearing Goodwill clothes, and Jen was in paper scrubs. While we waited for the ambulance from Jamaica Hospital Medical Center (our mother hospital), Jen asked if I wanted to get a view of the city. She had found a parking garage with a view of Manhattan, so we walked a bit and up five flights of stairs to the top of the garage. The view was beyond belief! All I really understood at that point was that we'd been buried alive, we'd gotten out, we'd triaged people, I had had asthma attacks, we'd left the city on a boat, were in Bayonne Hospital, and now we were waiting to go home.
The Jamaica Hospital bus came to get us; we also brought back two civilians and a firefighter from the 46 Battalion. It was getting dark and I was nervous; I asked everyone if we could keep the inside lights on in the van. (It was not normal for me to be afraid of the dark.) No one objected. Our route home was over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. While we were on the bridge, we got word that a man had been picked up on the George Washington Bridge in a fuel truck, possibly trying to blow it up. The drive over the bridge seemed to take an eternity; all I wanted to do was get off it.
We got back to Jamaica, and were sent to a designated spot to be debriefed. No one met us, and our anxiety levels increased. All we wanted to do was go home. I started to feel ill again, and had my third asthma attack; Jen got help, and they wheeled me over to the emergency room. Jen was cleared to go home. I was sad to see her leave, but I knew she had to go to her grandmother.
They put me in a room on the fourth floor, but I didn't want to be anywhere high. I wanted to be close to the ground. Plus outside my window was an animated billboard of the Titanic sinking, that I had to see over and over for three days. Other than that, I was sitting there alone staring at four walls, with no one to talk to, no one who knew what I'd been through, not even a TV or a telephone.
I went home three days later. I was told not to watch television, or read newspapers or magazines, but to do normal things. I had a dislocated thumb, lacerations to my leg, many contusions, and many sore muscles. I also had the memories I would have to face of that day, just as my partners and co-workers would have to, as one by one we began to heal.
We did get a debriefing afterwards, but I don't think anyone really knew how to debrief us: it was wonderful that they were trying to help, but if you weren't there, you didn't know. No one had ever been through anything like that before. Slowly, by some divine intervention, some of the people Jen and I had been with on September 11 started finding each other.
My first contact was with Captain DeShore, who tracked us down a couple of weeks later. She thought she had sent Jen and me to our deaths when she sent us into the South Tower to rescue the three civilians. Now we have a good dozen or so people who were in the West & Liberty area when the tower came down; we meet once a month or so, to support one another.
I was off work for two and a half months with my injuries. On my fifth day back at work, I was dispatched to an incident in the subway -- my worst nightmare -- but I had to walk through my fears. In my third week back, I went to a transformer explosion at #1 New York Plaza, near the Staten Island Ferry terminal. I was beside myself, because I really didn't want to go back through the tunnel. My co-workers all keyed me up on the Nextel to make sure I was going to be all right. But I decided I am not going to let a bunch of people dictate how I should live, and I'm not going to live in fear. If I did not go, I would be letting the terrorists win; I had a job to do.
This tragedy has changed our world forever, and we are at war. In the midst of this, the hierarchies of the agencies I deal with on a daily basis are fighting each other. Isn't it bad enough we're at war? Didn't we learn anything from this tragedy? My co-workers and the other 911 units on the street are working together, and we worked together on 9/11. But the focus is all on the police agencies and the fire department.
EMS seems to have been lost in the dust of the World Trade Center. There are no separate funds available for the EMT's and paramedics who are outside the FDNY the way there are for police and firefighters. The fundraising for the EMT's and paramedics who died has been done by their co-workers, families, and friends. Yamel Merino, an EMT from MetroCare who was killed at Ground Zero, her family and the families of seven other EMS workers are really struggling and trying to move forward. I am sorry for the incredible losses of the fire department and police department, and for all the families who lost someone and are now left behind to pick up the pieces, but it is scary to think my family would have to struggle to receive benefits or to bury me.
And this constant "policeman" and "fireman" talk, that's enough to make me go off my rocker. There were women there, women are helping rebuild the city, women are in EMS, women are on the police department, women are on the fire department. The US accuses Bin Laden of being a chauvinist, but that's exactly what this is doing, instead of pulling us together.
Jen and I just got approved to work together three days a week instead of two. You hear people say your partner is your lifeline; this couldn't be more true with Jen and me. If you don't know each other, it makes for a horrible eight hours. If the shit hits the fan, you need to know your partner is there. It's a different bond and a different loyalty, and a lot of people don't understand it.
Jen and I were friends before; now, the chemistry of our relationship has been nurtured. We respect each other, and know each other's strengths and limitations. It makes for a very good combination, and it helps our partnership work well.
September 11, 2001, was about humanity, and that means humans. All the human beings who were in that area gave of themselves unselfishly, and got the job done. There were no titles down there: it was everybody helping everybody.
Copyright © 2002 Women in the Fire Service, Inc.
NETWORKING THE WOMEN OF TODAY'S FIREFIGHTING WORLD, AND PROVIDING RESOURCES TO HELP BUILD THE FIRE SERVICE OF THE FUTURE