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Exodus to New Jersey: Triage and Treatment on the New Jersey Shore
Author: Lisa Griffin
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Originally Published in our Nov/Dec 2001 issue.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001 dawned warm and sunny in sprawling Monmouth County, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City. Located 40 miles by land, and 25 by water, from Manhattan, the eastern shore is home to over 100,000 people. Thousands of residents make the daily commute from here to New York via rail, bus and ferry.
Children had just settled into their first full week of school after the summer break, and people embarked on their daily routine. At about 10 minutes before 9, word began to circulate in the area that a plane had struck one of the towers of the World Trade Center.
Upon hearing this, many locals started for the beachfronts that border Sandy Hook and Raritan bays. These beaches all offer magnificent views of the New York skyline, especially on clear days and nights.
As word spread, spectators arrived by the carload. A large plume of smoke snaked skyward, and the crowd bustled with speculation that an errant tour plane had inadvertently crashed into this popular landmark.
A short while later, an object was seen heading towards the darkening column of smoke. Moments later, a fireball erupted. Those assembled gasped in horror. Many local radio and television stations, their transmitters mounted on top of the Twin Towers, lost their signals.
Networks with broadcast capabilities outlined what thousands of people had just witnessed. Two hijacked jetliners had each crashed into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center.
Members of the Shark River Hills First Aid Squad from New Jersey at the base of the collapsed tower. In addition to receiving hundreds of injured people on the Jersey shore, fire and EMS companies also ferried across to New York to assist. Photo: Michael Bascom
The Exodus Arrives
In the Borough of Highlands, a close-knit clamming town with a harbor on Sandy Hook Bay, Lieutenant Edward Chambers was watching the horror unfold on a television set in headquarters. As media coverage brought terror into homes and offices throughout the world, Highlands Police received a phone call from the SeaStreak Ferry as it traversed the harbor between New York and New Jersey. The SeaStreak official informed the police that they were carrying nearly 400 injured people from Manhattan.
Anticipating that many people would seek refuge on the ferries, Chambers had his dispatcher contact the Monmouth County Radio Room, and advise them to put their emergency plan into effect. A Field Communications Unit, and the personnel to operate it were dispatched. The county radio room requested EMS assistance from surrounding towns.
Within the next several hours, more than fifty volunteer first aid squads, eight Monmouth County EMS Coordinators, and paramedics from the Monmouth Ocean County Mobile Intensive Care Unit would mobilize. They were dispatched to marinas, train stations, and bus stops along commuter corridors. Other EMS personnel boarded outbound ferries to Manhattan, and treated injuries as they came back to NJ.
Thirteen squads were dispatched to Jersey City, to assist arriving commuters at that location. Although all of these areas were set to accept thousands of casualties, few arrived. “That was when we realized that the devastation was much worse than we had imagined,” said Mike Bascom, Chief EMS Coordinator.
Many other EMS squads from Monmouth and Ocean Counties provided coverage for those assigned to patient receiving areas. “This alone was impressive, keeping in mind that our professional emergency medical services are almost completely volunteer,” said Bascom.
“We mobilized fifty-nine squads, and utilized over one hundred ambulances, working as one team to provide coverage to Monmouth County and victims of the World Trade Center attack,” added Bascom. This was apart from responding to daily calls for service in each community.
Across the bay, a ghastly cyclone of smoke from both towers, now collapsed, blanketed the horizon. The eerie wail of countless sirens hung in the air as ambulances and fire engines raced to both harbors. Buses, too, would begin arriving. Military fighter planes, the only aircraft permitted to fly after the FAA edict, thundered in the sky overhead. Four area hospitals prepared for mass casualties.
Members of New Jersey EMS crews, on mutual aid assist in NYC, leave Ground Zero after a 22-hour shift. Photo: Michael Bascom
EMS Mutual Aid
Dressed in squad uniforms, from places like Keansburg, Union Beach, Little Silver, Shrewsbury, and Eatontown, EMS personnel from different walks of life and across Monmouth County teamed together to provide aid.
As news reports filled the airwaves, area physicians shut down their practices, some leaving patients in the waiting room, and headed for the marina. Nurses not already on duty at local hospitals either showed up at work to lend a hand, or raced to Atlantic Highlands and Highlands.
The entire Atlantic Highlands Police, Fire and Emergency Management Departments deployed to the harbor. An area was set up to receive victims and commuters returning from the city via ferries and buses. A Decontamination area was set up and operated by the Monmouth County Health Department.
Officials prepared for receiving mass casualties, and triage and treatment areas were established and staffed by various first aid squads, doctors, nurses and the American Red Cross. The Middletown Township Police Field Communications unit provided radio support. The Middletown Police Auxiliary unit dispatched a contingent of officers to help with crowd and traffic control. Like other emergency personnel, the auxiliary members left paying jobs to respond to Atlantic Highlands within an hour of the call for help. EMS Mobilization Coordinator Dale Bennett (Eatontown First Aid) provided supervision on scene.
The throngs that disembarked without injuries had to be immediately decontaminated. Firefighters gently sprayed each person with a stream of water from a nearby pumper. Family members flocked to the marina in a desperate attempt to find a spouse, parent, son or daughter. In all, the Atlantic Highlands site would treat approximately 600 people, none of the injuries serious. This scene was officially mobilized at 1100 hours, and secured at 0000 hours.
Police, EMS, Hazmat
Lieutenant Ed Chambers was a busy man. His entire department had mobilized, and each man was assigned a post. Another group of auxiliary police from Middletown was posted throughout town to handle the influx of traffic.
The Monmouth County Police Radio Field Communications Unit took charge of communications operations, and EMS Mobilization Coordinators Pete Lang and Paul Roman (Shrewsbury First Aid) supervised the entire process.
A decontamination area was set up and staffed by personnel from the Fort Monmouth Fire Department. Here they began the laborious task of decontaminating over thirteen hundred commuters.
“We didn’t know what kind of injuries to expect,” said Chambers. “Most of the people they treated had eye injuries or lung problems, from the soot and smoke,” explained Chambers.
Located along I-95 in Wall Township, Monmouth County Corporate Airport prepared to airlift patients to regional trauma centers. Several area squads and paramedics set up triage and treatment areas and the Wall Township Police FieldCom Unit established communications. Deputy EMS Coordinator Mike Opegaard supervised this operation from 1100 through 2000, when it was secured.
When Mayor Rudolph Guiliani allowed limited rail traffic to leave NYC at approximately 1800 hours, squads were deployed to the one dozen plus railroad stations along coastal Monmouth and Ocean Counties. Between Matawan and Long Branch, many people disembarked southbound trains, and if they hadn’t been deconned in NYC, they went through the process at these stations. Squads remained on post at the rail stations until approximately 0100 hours. There were no major injuries reported.
Members of the New York City Police Department, the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office, and local police departments interviewed and documented everyone. This was necessary, as people from all over the tri-state area (NY, NJ, and CT) sought refuge on any mode of transportation that was leaving New York. This scene was operated between 1100 and 0000 hours.
“It was a terrific response – but, unfortunately, most of the resources never got used,” said Chambers. “The people we thought would need EMS died instead, never leaving the city.”
Response to NYC
Middletown is Monmouth County’s largest department, with 105 men and women. On September 11th, it gained the distinction of being the town suffering the most casualties from this disaster, nearly 50 residents perished in the attack. By 2 PM, several detectives had left for the city. Two hours later, the entire Emergency Services Unit left for Manhattan by ferry. All of the officers reported to Ground Zero and began the arduous task of removing debris by the bucket load. At times, there was the gruesome discovery of body parts, which had to carefully removed, packaged, and logged.
In the days that followed this tragedy, Monmouth County sent 21 volunteer first aid squads to Ground Zero. “These men and women worked side by side with the Fire Department of New York, the New York Police Department, and other rescue workers and support personnel,” said Bascom. “The appreciation for the work of our volunteers was evidenced by the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who cheered and waved banners as we entered and left Ground Zero.”
“It was not appreciation that motivated us, it was the need for our services, regardless of the situation, the location, or the harm that may be brought upon us,” said Bascom as he addressed state and local dignitaries and fellow EMS workers at a service honoring EMS on September 29.
“We will never forget that we were there, whether our participation included treating victims at Ground Zero, or standing by for hours waiting for the victims that never came,” said an emotional Bascom. “We were all a part of the most impressive mobilization of volunteer emergency resources ever in the history of our country.”
Today, the Monmouth County Office of Emergency Management and other county and local agencies have begun the process of reviewing and updating their own plans to reflect the chillingly real threat of terrorism.
Lisa Griffin has been dispatching for 20 years, and is currently a 9-1-1 operator/Tactical Dispatcher for Middletown Township in New Jersey. She has been an Advanced First Aid Instructor, a Special Police Officer with Middletown PD, and a Class II officer with the Borough of Union Beach. She writes weekly features for The Courier, a Middletown NJ weekly newspaper.