NYC 9/11 emergency doc reflects on life-changing day

Sep 11, 2015

On September 11, 2001, emergency room physician Dr. Antonio Dajer reported for his shift at what’s now called New York Presbyterian-Lower Manhattan Hospital, five blocks from Ground Zero. When the twin towers were hit, Dajer and his hospital team treated some 1,200 victims caught in the attack. We talk with Dr. Dajer about his life-changing experience on 9/11.

For millions of us, the dreadful images of the burning and collapsing twin towers on September 11, 2001 are engraved in our memories. Even far removed from New York, live video of the disaster made that awful day seem all too close.

Now, imagine being just five blocks away from the falling World Trade Center.

Dr. Tony Dajer is the director of emergency medicine at New York Presbyterian-Lower Manhattan Hospital. He’s the keynote speaker at the Sparrow Foundation’s annual Kaleidoscope conference at the Kellogg Center at MSU.

Current State talks with Dr. Dajer about his experiences on 9-11.


How have you come to view that day from a distance of 14 years? 

It creates a camaraderie and a trust in each other obviously that persists 14 years later. We all know that everybody rose to the occasion on that day and still would, as anyone would I think. What 9/11 proved to me was that people will rise to any occasion and certainly our staff did.

You try to avoid being too philosophical and thinking about the state of the world and what could've been.

For me, the most powerful after feeling in New York City was how tender everyone was with each other, how caring we were with each other. And this is with a lot of hard bitten New Yorkers who generally ignore each other.

Do you have a lasting image or two from that day?

Probably the most powerful image is when we first got our patients. We heard the plane had hit. We knew it was an airliner. We knew it was going to be bad. We scrambled to get all the supplies together. Rushing around, we knew we had five or 10 minutes at most. Then there was a strange pause where we waited for people to come in and we were at the ambulance bay. For about 30 seconds, nothing was happening. And we looked at each other thinking “false alarm.” Suddenly, a wave of people came around the corner. So the time it took people to run those five blocks from the towers to our hospital they came in a wave. It was a tidal wave of people and I suddenly thought, “Now what do I do?”

What worked well that day and what didn't work well?

I think what worked well was being in a small hospital, we all knew each other. It was certainly very doable to coordinate and know who was in charge, who was managing what.

Specifically when I saw the tidal wave of people I had a large group of young residents and interns with me and I immediately started assigning them a patient each. As every patient came in, you're supposed to tie tags around their necks and take your time and there was no time for that. So I would just grab a young doctor, attach them to a patient, tell them to go back and find the proper treatment area and tell them to circulate back. So matching the people that I had with the people that were coming in worked very well.

What I think was very difficult on 9/11 was the coordination on a city level. The command center was taken out when the North Tower went down. The city, very unwisely, after the 1993 bombing, had put the Office of Emergency Management headquarters across the street from the North Tower and that was destroyed in the bombing as well. So the city was leaderless. A lot of people were trying to set up triage areas and treatment areas in our vicinity when we had a fully functioning hospital. I don't think any harm came of it but it was not well coordinated.

Were changes made in emergency medicine because of 9/11?

I think so. I think a lot of lessons, a lot of dogma, was challenged. Specifically treating people at the scene was a bad idea. Evacuation is the most life-saving thing you can do. The miracle of 9/11 is that 99% of the people below the tower’s impact sites survived. The transit police, the police, the fire department, all of the rescue workers who got people out of those buildings are the true heroes. They saved thousands of lives by getting people away from the disaster site.