When former editorial director Lisa Dionne and I traveled to„New York City soon after 9/11, we weren’t sure what first-person accounts we would be able to obtain. By a strange turn of events, we ended up in the garage at FDNY’s Division 4 (then Battalion 4) early one morning amid a host of early responders to the twin towers on that awful day in September 2001.
We sat around a picnic table in the middle of the garage, speaking to EMTs and paramedics who came in on their own time to tell us about their involvement before, during and after the collapse of the World Trade Center (WTC) on 9/11. They were appreciative that we were there covering the EMS side of the tragedy because the massive fire operations and high firefighter death toll had overshadowed the„EMS efforts at the incident.
It was both a shocking and therapeutic experience as individuals, who had never really told ˙theirÓ story in front of others, opened up and allowed us to learn what they experienced on 9/11.
Each EMT and paramedic had a unique experience and perspective about that awful day. Some laughed as they told their story; others choked up as they related their involvement and the sights they had no choice but to witness.
A few were already sick in the aftermath of the incident, having been trapped in the horrible debris clouds and having to inhale the caustic substances that resulted from the pulverized cement, asbestos, glass and countless mixed chemicals and substances. As these particular responders spoke, they paused occasionally and coughed up blood-tinged sputum in napkins. It was an ominous sign of what was to follow for many in the months and years after 9/11.
There was one person who stood out that day, not just because of his unique personality and rapid-fire speech, but because of his clear concern for those he continually referred to as ˙his guys.Ó
That person was Lt. Renô Davila.
Renô was the first„EMS officer to arrive on scene at 1 WTC. As he headed down„Vesey St., he saw a lot of debris coming down and bodies lying on the street, so he turned onto„West St. and assumed initial command there. He attempted to bring order out of chaos at his location on„Church St., assigning his troops like a field general in the heat of battle. Once additional senior officers arrived, he was reassigned to set up operations on„West St. His strong personality, distinct voice, and passion for his personnel and his mission allowed Renô to grab hold of the monster that loomed over the crews at both locations.
Declaring a ˙Conditions 04Ó (major incident), updating citywide communications; requesting multiple specialty vehicles; assigning people to staging, triage and transportation; and asking EMT Eric Ramos to stay with him in case he lost his voice, Renô began to grasp his small portion of the massive incident.
He told us that his first thought was to ˙grab a hold of the MCI, grab control of the people responding, before everything got crazy,Ó because what he saw in the first few minutes on sceneƒpeople coming out with first- to fourth-degree burns, and people jumping to their deathsƒwas a sign of the magnitude of the job and the number of patients that would be coming out of the buildings if they remained standing.
When Renô firmly ordered his crews that just triageƒnot treatmentƒwas to occur during the early stages of the operation, some of them reacted like, ˙What’s wrong with this lieutenant?Ó But he didn’t care because he had been in the operational driver’s seat at nasty MCIs before and knew what had to be done.
Thenƒwithout warningƒRenô spotted a large airliner in his peripheral vision as it swiftly disappeared inside 2 WTC. The fireball and bodies that flew out the other side, along with the carnage he witnessed later as the towers literally disintegrated on and around Renô and his comrades, would change him forever.
Renô was never the same after Sept. 11, 2001. His wild personality grew wilder, some of his colleagues and friends distanced themselves from him, and his mood swings began to twist and turn like a kite caught in a hurricane. His personal experiences on 9/11, and the things he witnessed at the„World„Trade„Center, severely affected his ability to continue functioning in„EMS.
As Renô’s physical and emotional health deteriorated, a few friends and colleagues did as much as they could to help him conquer the demons of 9/11. But in the end, the collapse of the towers and the horrible sights and sounds of that day defeated Renô, causing him to collapse emotionally and financially, and contributed greatly to his death in May.
Renô’s lifeƒand deathƒshould serve as a lesson for all of us. After more than 20 years of dedicated service to his fellow man, Renô died alone. He didn’t receive a final symbolic ride in an FDNY ambulance like those who died on site at the„World„Trade„Center. And his death serves as a harbinger of what’s to come for many others who experienced the deep trauma of 9/11.
Rest in piece, Lt. Davilaƒyou earned it. Our friendship was short, but the memories you left with me will live forever.