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Unsung Heroes

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Every Tuesday for the past three years, New York Presbyterian Hospital paramedics Alex Massac and Scott Strong have worked together. Tuesday, Sept. 11, was no exception: The crew before them is always good about leaving them a clean bus, and by 0730 HRS, they were waiting for their first call of the day. It was an uneventful morning until around 0846 HRS, when they were at the intersection of 66th Street and York Avenue and first received word a plane had hit one of the 110-story World Trade Center towers.

When the flood of subsequent radio reports confirmed it was no false alarm, Massac and Strong immediately requested permission to join their comrades at the World Trade Center complex. Because they were about 70 blocks north of the site, however, dispatch instructed them to stay put and cover their immediate 9-1-1 area.

“[Being told to stay put] was disappointing initially when the first plane hit,” Massac says. “But then the second plane hit; we sort of took a deep breath and thought this could be terrorism. We’re always taught that terrorists will do something once, [then launch a second assault or detonate a secondary device] to kill the rescuers. So at that point we said, ‘We need to just hold off now and make sure we understand what’s going on.’”

They didn’t have much time to hold off. Approximately 10 minutes later, dispatch sent them to an office building in Manhattan’s Upper East Side where employees had called 9-1-1 for a coworker suffering an anxiety attack. She was having difficulty coping with the magnitude of the situation, and her coworkers were afraid for her safety.

“We entered the room where her office was. It was all cubicles,” Strong recalls. “She was on the phone with her minister, and she wouldn’t let go of the phone. She wouldn’t budge; she was like a solid rock. Every muscle in her body was tense.”

Suddenly, the woman began screaming, sprang from her chair, and began thrashing on the floor. She was experiencing what could best be described as an emotional seizure.

“She must have been flailing around for 10 or 15 minutes; the height she was obtaining off the floor was pretty amazing,” Strong says. “We couldn’t communicate [verbally] with her, but she would make eye contact with us. All we could do was clear away the furniture [so she wouldn’t injure herself] and wait. She knew what she had to do. She did it; then she calmed down.”

Massac says dealing with a person in such a state proved frustrating. “We couldn’t console her,” he says. “Once she calmed down, we realized why she needed the help. She couldn’t get home to New Jersey. She had family in the Trade Center, and her [office] building had a perfect view down the island of Manhattan [from the intersection of 39th Street and 2nd Avenue], and you could see the building on fire.”

And so it went the rest of the day. Most of their calls were for patients experiencing anxiety attacks. Massac and Strong spent anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour with each patient, until they knew the patient would be all right. They were para-therapists in addition to being paramedics, a role in which they were both proud and uneasy. Proud because, to a degree, they helped people who were suffering, but uneasy because they couldn’t use the medical training they’d accumulated throughout their careers on one of the bloodiest days in American history.

“Not having patients [from the World Trade Center incident] was frustrating,” Strong says. “Here we are with all this training and no [physically injured] patients. And essentially everyone we knew was down there except us. We wanted to be there, but at the same time, we were relieved we didn’t have to be there.”

From 0846 HRS until 1800 HRS, when they were finally relieved from their unit, Massac and Strong’s coverage area swelled from their normal 30 blocks to more than 70. They would cover the area between 23rd and 57th Streets and 6th Avenue to the Hudson River—basically the entire Upper East Side of Manhattan. They worked a double shift in the field, and then as many hours as they could later that evening. Strong worked in the Presbyterian comm center, and Massac remained on standby at the hospital, helping to organize the food and provisions that had poured in from neighboring communities.

According to FDNY EMS officials, an average day in New York yields 3,000 to 3,500 9-1-1 EMS calls. On the 11th, there were approximately 4,100. In Massac and Strong’s case, the vast majority of those extra calls were anxiety attacks. These two medics alone responded to roughly 14 anxiety calls during their double shift.

Massac and Strong are among the unsung heroes of Sept. 11. They represent those rescuers who maintained their regular coverage areas and responded to the emergency calls that kept coming in. Many EMS and fire personnel continued to serve New York’s broader needs on Sept. 11. It’s often tempting to pull resources to respond to major incidents, but New York’s EMS response system ensured that adequate service was maintained to all coverage areas at all times. Thousands of New Yorkers can be grateful these dedicated professionals stayed the course.

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