World Trade Center: an interview with doctor Emil Chynn
Among the many people who took part in the rescue and recovery work on and after 9/11, in addition to firefighters and police forces, an important role was played by medical workers. Although they are mentioned rarely, they helped greatly in treating injured civilians and in helping other rescuers as well.
Undicisettembre offers its readers the account of surgeon Emil Chynn, who was the first doctor to arrive at Ground Zero and organized the first triage center for the injured near the site of the disaster. Dr. Chynn, MBA, is also the proprietor of the Park Avenue SafeSight practice in New York.
The photographs in this article are courtesy of Emil Chynn, whom we wish to thank for his kindness and willingness to share his experience.
Undicisettembre: Can you give us a general account of what you saw and experienced on that day?
This wasn’t as crazy as it sounds. I was also involved back in 1993, when terrorists set off a truck bomb in the parking garage of one of the Towers. At that time I was an intern at Saint Vincent's Hospital and was about to get off call, and hospital administration told us all to just stay at the hospital, since that was the closest Trauma Center to WTC. However, it took at least 4 hours for any victims to arrive by ambulance, because of logistical delays (like getting the ambulances downtown, triaging the patients, and having them come back uptown). So I thought I would be much more useful if I were at the scene this time to accelerate the process - so I headed downtown.
I first tried to catch a cab, but that was impossible. First of all, almost all of them were occupied. Second, you can imagine the reaction of the cabby I found who didn’t have a fare, when I asked him to take me to WTC. So to save time, I rollerbladed down to WTC in my scrubs. By the time I got below Canal Street, there was like a foot of paper on the ground, so I had to take off my blades and walk. A few more blocks downtown, like Worth Street, you started to see some stuff on fire, with people running past you, uptown towards safety. By the time you got to Chambers Street, it was really scary; nobody on the street, with abandoned ambulances and fire trucks on fire. I had a cop car explode near me. It was like a post-apocalyptic, World War III movie.
Near where I thought WTC should be, I came across a few other brave or stupid healthcare workers like myself, who were also disoriented. Visibility was about 20 feet because of all the dust and smoke and ash in the air - it was literally as dark as dusk at Ground Zero, although it was a beautiful, perfect sunny fall day up on 12th St. We thought we were lost, because we couldn’t find WTC - and it’s hard to miss two 100-plus-storey buildings, even with that much smoke. I remember walking around the block with one nurse, one EMT guy, and one girl who was a PT student or something, looking upwards like tourists in Times Square, but never being able to find the Twin Towers. Finally, the EMT guy said, “I think that’s the Tower, guys” and pointed to a small pile of rubble, about 100 feet high. I argued with him, saying “Are you nuts? How could a 100 storey building be reduced to something only 4 stories high?” so we all walked around the block again. You have to understand that when we started downtown, both towers were burning on top, but still standing. We didn’t have access to TV, or radio, and all cell phones didn’t work downtown. So a person watching CNN in Japan would know more about what was going on than us, a few dozen feet away.
Undicisettembre: Why were there no professional rescue efforts going on when you arrived?
Emil Chynn: Many weeks after 9/11, after I went back to work as a LASEK surgeon, I figured out why, and there were several reasons. First, the Command and Control Center for emergency response for all of New York City had been coincidentally and tragically located at 7 WTC. A month before 9/11, I almost signed a lease to move my LASEK center to the retail arcade of one of the Towers, but decided against that because rent was too high, so I just missed making a similar tragic decision. Unfortunately, 7 WTC was hit by a lot of debris from the collapse of 1 and 2, which set the building on fire. It didn’t help that they had huge backup generators to supply electricity to the Command Center on the 23rd Floor of 7, plus a tank of over 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel to power that generator – which also ignited. So that wiped out a lot of the resources for emergency response.
Plus, you have to understand that before 9/11, the US had never been attacked on home soil ever, and it was before terrorism was a recognized threat around the world. So it’s understandable that the NYPD and other government agencies weren’t that prepared, as this hadn’t happened before.
Undicisettembre: Tell us about your efforts on 9/11 itself, and those of other first responders that day.
Emil Chynn: Well, I got there very early, and you can imagine the emotional toll the collapse of both towers had on all the cops and firefighters. I saw a few just sitting down and crying. That made even more of an impact than seeing a firetruck on fire, because those guys are incredibly tough, so it’s really disconcerting when you see them sobbing. Of course, unlike them, I didn’t lose any close friends or colleagues myself that day, or else I probably would have been less functional than I was.
After the PT girl got her shit back together, as well as the rest of us, our little group decided that we’d better set up some kind of triage center, since it was pretty clear that there wouldn’t be any organized medical response at the scene that day. Not with firefighters crying, and cops saying to us when we asked who we should report to “beats me – your guess is as good as mine.”
So we took over the nearest store that was still standing, and that looked structurally sound – like, not with a huge shard of WTC sticking out of it. That turned out to be a Burger King across the street, which had most of its front glass blown out but at least it wasn't on fire. We cleared out the Burger King and most places in the area didn't have running water, but the Burger King did, maybe because it was a restaurant or something like that. There were a couple of ambulances standing around with no crew. I'm not sure to this day what happened to them – maybe they died during the tower collapse, maybe they ran to safety when that happened. Who knows. All we knew is we desperately needed supplies – so we looted those ambulances and took their IVs and trauma kits.
Undicisettembre: Did you have any contact or coordination with government agencies at that time?
Undicisettembre: Were there many episodes like that, of regular folks risking a lot, just to help out?
Emil Chynn: Yes. There were hundreds of episodes like that every day. People were literally falling over themselves to help out in any way they could. There were people digging in the rubble with their bare hands, “on the pile” is what we called it, searching for survivors. Everyone was so dedicated, and generous, and giving. It’s what made being there tolerable, because amidst all the death and destruction from all that evil, you could still also feel the kindness and humanity of all the volunteers and first responders. Everybody was just pitching in, doing their part, without thought of pay, or glory, or anything selfish. I was nice to be a part of that.
I was interviewed on some network TV station the next day, and was asked if the first responders could use anything, and I mentioned that we needed masks, because there was so much dust in the air it was sometimes uncomfortable breathing. The next day, somehow, hundreds, if not thousands of masks arrived. It’s like the entire country wanted to help us help those people at Ground Zero.
Undicisettembre: What can you tell us about the victims at Ground Zero? What were their conditions?
In retrospect, that was because of the way the buildings collapsed – they went straight down, and compacted themselves, rather than falling over. So if you were inside the buildings when they collapsed, you were dead, whereas if you were a block away, you were basically fine.
Undicisettembre: What happened in the next days? How long were you there?
Emil Chynn: I volunteered at Ground Zero for nearly one week straight, working between 12 and 18 hours per day. The first day was totally chaotic and you didn't get any real visibility until the afternoon, when all the particulate matter settled down and you got normal visibility and could see at least a block. Before then you couldn’t really see much of anything, so you didn’t realize the scope of the situation. That’s when you saw both towers had collapsed, and there was another skyscraper nearby with part of one of the towers embedded in it, and by then WTC7 had also collapsed.
There were ambulances pulling in and out, evacuating trauma victims, a lot of whom were first responders with relatively minor injuries (like broken bones). At that point, it was somewhat more organized, with cop cars pulling up with cops inside, rather than abandoned cop cars on fire.
But again, we were expecting major trauma victims to arrive at our triage center, but no victims were arriving. By that evening, all of us healthcare workers were starting to realize that there were going to be very, very few survivors. That was really sad, and also disappointing: you work so hard all day, preparing to help people – and we did help hundreds of people with minor trauma like abrasions and lacerations and fractures – but we didn’t help one person on the major trauma side.
FEMA didn't arrive until the second or third day. Of course, NYPD and FDNY was there from the start. At midday on 9/11, I already saw guys with FBI jackets, and even ATF, which I thought odd, but maybe there was an ATF base nearby. I never saw a single FEMA jacket until the second or third day. Not that I blame FEMA, because pre-9/11, FEMA was only involved in natural disasters like hurricanes or floods for which you have more warning, like at least a day or so. So FEMA probably needs a couple of days to prepare a fast response for a natural disaster. But in the case of 9/11, there was zero warning, because it was not a natural disaster – it was man-made.
Undicisettembre: Doctors are rarely mentioned among the heroes of that day. How do you explain that? What do you think about it?
That said, it’s unfair that the vast majority of healthcare workers who were there on 9/11 were not only “first responders” but true volunteers – they weren’t going down there as part of their jobs, and they weren’t getting paid. This leads to even more unfairness, although it’s really nobody’s fault.
If you developed a medical problem while at Ground Zero, and were a cop or firefighter, you would get lifetime disability and lifetime pay, because you were on the job, and your disability was “work related.” However, if you were a true volunteer, you would get none of that. It’s not like I think that the lifetime benefits of city employees from their work at Ground Zero are unfair. Of course that’s fair – they risked their lives, and lost friends, protecting all of us.
But what about the true volunteers, like the healthcare workers, and myself?
I never had any respiratory issues before 9/11. At Dartmouth, I briefly raced on the cycling team, which was a club sport back then. When I was a medical student at Columbia, I ran the NY Marathon in 3:36, which was a pretty respectable time, especially since I didn’t really get to train, because they were working me like a dog. So I was always in top cardiovascular shape.
After volunteering at Ground Zero for nearly a week, working 12-18 hour days, I developed asthma about a month or two afterward, for the first time, and I’ve had that since, and will have that the rest of my life. But I received no disability for this, and that’s why I’ve had to work every day of my life since. On the positive side, that’s how I’ve managed to treat over 20,000 LASEK patients!
Undicisettembre: Did you medical volunteers receive any recognition at all?
Emil Chynn: A few months after 9/11, I got a call from someone saying they were organizing a tribute to first responders at Yankee Stadium, they were inviting cops and firefighters and their families, and wanted me and the other medical volunteers that day to participate. I was briefly happy, as I thought that finally we would at least be properly recognized. (The only free meal I was offered for my service was at a place called Bar 6 across from my apartment in the West Village, and when I showed up a month later for dinner, the owner reneged on his promise of a “thank-you dinner”.)
Well, that happiness lasted about 5 seconds. Because the NYC official calling then said, “We would like to ask you if you would be willing to provide free medical services that night, in case someone at the Stadium has a heart attack or something.” I hung up the phone on him.
Look, as a doctor it’s not like I need or want the free dinner. But some fair recognition for the hundreds of medical workers who were true volunteers at Ground Zero would be nice.
Undicisettembre: Did you have psychological consequences after 9/11?
Emil Chynn: I'm a surgeon and when you are a surgeon you learn how to block a lot of stuff out – this is a necessity to do your job properly. I have the largest Refractive Surgery fellowship program in the US, so I train a lot of doctors on how to be eye surgeons – at least 20 doctors from over a dozen different countries over the past 15 years.
Right now I'm training a doctor who's very good at treating patients medically, but she gets very nervous in the operating room: so nervous she sometimes she says she cannot proceed. I tell her “What do you mean you cannot proceed? You are a surgeon – you must proceed!” Eye surgery is different from other kind of surgeries because the patient is awake (we just anesthetize their eyeball), so in that sense it’s harder than most other kinds of surgery. Like, I’ve scrubbed in on neurosurgery when I was at Columbia, but those patients are unconscious.
So eye surgeons are operating on people’s eyes while they’re awake and fully alert! So that means, to be an excellent eye surgeon, you must get good at always being in control, no matter what. I've done 30,000 cases of different types of surgery: mostly laser vision correction but also “real surgery” like corneal transplants. I think almost all good surgeons (as opposed to all doctors) would be good in a war-like setting, like 9/11 was, because we have to deal with blood and sometimes death or blindness routinely.
Having said that, after 9/11 I thought I was perfectly fine for a couple of months, and thought I would happily not have any PTSD, but then I started not be able to sleep. I went to psychological counseling provided by New York City and NYU (I was a part-time MBA student at the time), and went once or twice a week for three months. It was very helpful. You cannot speak freely with nonprofessionals, because there are too many things going on and you don't want to talk about this with a relative, say with your mom, because she would get very upset for me. I think anybody who is in a very stressful situation should seek some counseling,
Undicisettembre: Has 9/11 given you a new insight into being a doctor?
Emil Chynn: I was already taking trauma call for Manhattan Eye and Ear and for New York Eye and Ear, and even though I was just teaching residents how to sew up ruptured eyeballs, it is often part of other major trauma. But this is part of your job as a surgeon, so it probably doesn’t affect you that much as a person, because you perceive it as somewhat normal.
But 9/11 was not at all normal or acceptable because it was an intentional act, not an accident. So you tend to dwell on that far longer than another kind of accidental trauma. It’s like grieving for a relative that was killed in a car accident, versus one who was murdered. The latter is much worse.
Being the first doctor to arrive at Ground Zero on 9/11 changed me as a person, by giving me a new perspective on life, in terms of what’s a big thing, and what’s a small thing. After 9/11, everything is a small thing.
I’m not going to lie and say that I don’t get upset about small things, because I am a perfectionist, am known as a perfectionist, and that’s why people choose me for LASEK, and why I can get most of my patients seeing better than 20/20.
I would say that volunteering at 9/11 for a week, enduring incredibly challenging and even scary conditions, has made me impervious to getting rattled by anything. It’s given me strength – or more accurately, given me total confidence that I will be able to perform at a very high level, under any condition, no matter what. That kind of confidence is not normal for civilians, probably only something that soldiers who have gone through combat can understand. So 9/11 was my combat.
Undicisettembre: What do you think about conspiracy theories that claim that 9/11 was an inside job?
Undicisettembre: Did you get a chance to see World Trade Center 7? Was is burning? As you know conspiracy theorists say that the fire inside WTC 7 was not enough to make it collapse.
Emil Chynn: Yes, it was burning. What do they mean with “not enough”? Are they going to qualify how much each building should burn? It's so stupid.
Undicisettembre: Have you been to the 9/11 Memorial Museum yet?
Emil Chynn: Yes. A couple of months ago, because someone wanted to interview me for the museum. I think they did a remarkable job. I was reading all of the controversy about portraying Muslims unfairly. I think they consciously made good efforts not to portray Islam or Muslims negatively.
For instance, there is a simulation where you hear the cockpit recording of United 93. If you pay attention, they only play voices in English of the pilot and the air traffic control. They purposely cut out the part where the terrorists speak and say “God is Great!” in Arabic. They were very conscious to present things so that it doesn't represent a religion or a race negatively. They did a remarkably good job. I challenge anyone who thinks they could do it better, given all the constraints.