As the attacks occurred on September 11, 2001, everyone ran for their lives. People fled New York City in droves, wanting to get away from the carnage, hoping to soon be safe in their homes and with their families. However, there were a select few men and women who did the exact opposite. These people kissed their loved ones goodbye and went towards the fury, passing hundreds of thousands going in the opposite direction.
When the planes hit the towers on that day, a call went out for any available ambulance rigs to come help with the fallout. Naturally, the South Orange Rescue Squad responded to the call. Established in 1952, the all-volunteer squad has been helping those in-need. So when the call went out, the available members got in the ambulance and drove down to Liberty State Park in Jersey City to begin their trek to Ground Zero.
“My younger brother was the captain of the squad at the time, and we heard when I was at work for the South Orange Department of Public Works,” said Dan Koenemund, a veteran of the Rescue Squad. “We saw on the news, that news brief on television, and I don’t know who came up with the idea, but we all went to the top of Jessica Way. And you could see the smoke and everything. My younger brother called me and said can you get out of work, I need you. I checked with my boss and he said sure. He knew where I was going.”
Fellow Rescue Squad member, Carey Smith, was teaching a CPR class in Montclair when he heard the news of the attacks.
“I finished the class because I knew I was needed somewhere,” said Smith. “I ran back to South Orange and got in to full uniform.”
Smith attended an Office of Emergency Management meeting in town before getting the call that he was need in Liberty State Park. Joining Smith and the Koenemund brothers was fellow Squad member, Ken Greene.
“Ten years ago, like everybody else, I woke up and saw the TV and realized what was going on and realized it was a terrorist attack,” said Greene. “Then we all said we knew what we needed to do. We all got dressed and came down (to the Rescue Squad).”
While the four were on route to Liberty State Park, another Squad member was already in the thick of things at Ground Zero. Dan Cohen was living in Manhattan at the time, in Greenwich Village. Cohen was awaked by a call from his wife, telling him that she heard an explosion in the city. After turning on the news, Cohen saw what had happened as moments earlier, a plane had hit the North Tower. While calling his wife back to say he was going to go see if he could help, the second plane flew into the South Tower.
“We didn’t know what it was at the time, but she said “there was another big explosion, something big just blew up”,” said Cohen. “So I said “all right, I have to get down there.” I didn’t know how I was going to get down there.”
Not wanting to take a subway or other means of public transportation, Cohen tried flagging down a car on the street. That’s when an unmarked FBI agent pulled over and drove him to an area close to the command center. That’s when he realized the significance of the crash.
“I ran the last couple of blocks and that’s when I saw it, one of the engines or part of one the engines of the plane, which was huge,” said Cohen. “And then I realized it wasn’t a little plane or an accident. I didn’t think it was terrorists or anything. I just thought “oh crap”, it’s a big plane. That’s when I thought there might have been passengers on it.”
When Cohen got to the command center, he was assigned to a group of fellow rescue workers. The plan was to go in to the lobby of the one of the towers to start evacuating people. As Cohen got his equipment on, that’s when the South Tower fell.
“I just heard the loudest rumble of my life,” said Cohen. “I looked up and the thing was just coming down on top of us. Everybody just ran around the corner. When I was running, I was blocked by a building and the dust cloud and everything just went around the corner and followed us. I ran another block and got up against a building and just shielded my face and everything just blew past us.”
Luckily Cohen was not injured by the blast. When the dust settled, he had a new task of helping the fallen victims. Gone were the command centers and organizations. As he described, it became “everybody for themselves.”
“It was just like run in and grab whatever you could find,” said Cohen. “We found some sheets and tore them up to put around our faces. We found some oxygen. People were coming out of stores and apartment buildings with water and we were just dumping water on peoples’ faces and just trying to clean them up.”
Cohen spent 29 minutes helping the wounded. Among the wounded was a firefighter who initially refused help until Cohen and others convinced him to receive medical assistance. They brought him to an ambulance and stuffed it with as many other injured people as well. Then the group was able to flag down a ferry to help bring more wounded across the Hudson.
Shortly after the second tower fell, Cohen was able to call his wife and reassure her that he was unharmed. Meanwhile across the Hudson, the South Orange crew, along with hundreds of other rigs, was getting the call to come to Liberty State Park.
“We drove in to Liberty State Park, obviously restricted access because they shut down all the roads at this time,” said Smith. “We got there and reported and lined up the rig in line and waited until we were needed. At that time they were ferrying patients over.”
At this time, the ferries had already been transporting injured civilians for some time. The numbers started to dwindle throughout the day.
“We had so many, so much personnel there that day, and the patients didn’t come,” said Greene. “My ambulance took three people that day, but not many other ambulances had patients that were treated and transported. We took three people that were walking wounded.”
Green recalled one woman with an injured shoulder who was treated by the crew.
“I tried to calm her down,” said Greene. “I said “don’t worry, you’re safe now, you’re in New Jersey, we’re going to be taking you to the hospital.” And she turns to me and says “I can’t relax, my husband is in the tower.” I always remember that, her words remain.”
Greene and the crew took the patients to Christ Hospital in Jersey City. He remembers the huge amount of doctors and personnel on standby, waiting for patients to come.
“All the personnel of their hospital were standing out waiting for our ambulance,” said Greene. “Doctors, nurses, everybody, waiting for the patients that never came. We were one of the few ambulances that pulled in with patients. And those three patients, they probably had the most attention that had ever been given at the hospital. They just had so many medical personnel there.”
Across the Hudson, Dan Cohen had set up shop with others at Chelsea Piers.
“There were hundreds of doctors and nurses and EMTs and medics, I’m not even sure who was organizing it,” said Cohen. “Each team had a surgeon and EMT and stuff and we kept waiting, expecting hundreds of victims. They kept making announcements saying the hospitals were filling up and soon they are start coming here and we’d be getting all these victims. But nothing ever happened. We sat there all day, but nobody ever came. Basically you got out or you didn’t.”
Cohen’s day ended after that, but the South Orange team was just getting started. They trekked through the Hudson tunnel to Chelsea Piers where their colleague had been just hours earlier. On the way, they were greeted by hundreds of cheering supporters. Having grown up in Ohio, Dan Koenemund had pre-conceived thoughts about New York City. What he experienced as the rig entered the city shocked him.
“There were people lined up on both sides of the streets, clapping for us as we were driving in to the city,” said Koenemund. “It was shocking. It was not the New York experience that I grown up fearing about.”
The men remember the outpour of kindness from everybody near the pier. Everything from water to food to cigarettes to even bathrooms were offered to the crew.
“If we had asked for a lobster dinner, I’m sure somebody would’ve found it for us,” said Smith.
Greene remembers a special moment when a actor from a popular television show happened to walk up to the crew.
“At that time, there was a TV show that was popular called Third Watch,” said Greene. “It was about the FDNY, paramedics and the New York City police department. One of the actors, his name was Bobby Cannavale, he played a paramedic on the show, he came up and just handed me a bottle of water. He was just doing his part, trying to do something because so many people wanted to help anyway they could. I just remember the sense of comradery that day as everybody people, actors and actresses, they were all just people that day.”
Following a day assisting at Chelsea Piers, the crew drove down to Ground Zero where they assisted rescue workers who were participating in search missions for injured civilians.
Looking back at their time at Ground Zero and their experience on September 11, 2001, each member of the crew reacts differently when the topic of that day is brought up.
“I thought about it for a long time and this may sound weird, but I don't mind hearing about it and reading about it,” said Cohen. “I feel kind of bad because I didn’t have post-traumatic stress where people don’t like to talk about it or think about it and I have always been kind of fascinated about it.”
Not every crew member shares the same view.
“I don’t like thinking about it,” said Koenemund. “I don’t watch things on TV about it. It happened; unfortunately there was nothing we could do about it.”
However, as Carey Smith explains, they all agree on one thing, that if it came time to do it again, they would all go and help any way they could.
“It’s in my blood to do it,” said Smith. “I would always go in.”