World Trade Center: an interview with first responder David Blacksberg

di Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

On the twenty-first anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, Undicisettembre is offering its readers the personal account of first responder David Blacksberg who back then was working an EMT for the Fire Department of New York City as was deployed to the scene before the crash of the second plane.

We would like to thank David Blacksberg for his kindness and availability.

Undicisettembre: Can you give me a general account of what you saw and experienced on 9/11?

David Blacksberg:
At that time I worked for the EMS of the Fire Department of New York as an EMT. I was not supposed to be working that day, but the day prior a colleague of mine told me she was not going to be at work because she had a doctor’s appointment and she asked if I could fill in for her, of course I said yes.

On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was parked in the ambulance with my partner close to the Brooklyn Bridge, facing Manhattan. We were just waiting for any calls that might come in; we had an ALS unit, a paramedic ambulance, right next to us.

While we were facing Manhattan we saw the first plane go into the first building, we saw it in the sky even before it hit the building. We were all shocked by that, I called on the radio and told the dispatcher what happened and said we were responding. I knew my father was working in Manhattan that day so I called him and let know not to go downtown, something happened and it wasn’t safe and I would be in touch. After we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, my partner and I along with the ALS unit were first on the west side. I was the driver and I parked underneath the pedestrian walkway going from Winter Garden to 2 World Financial Center.

We set up an incident command post there, we put our helmets and turnout coats on and we were going to get into Tower 2 to coordinate the response and to get people to evacuate, because the building that was hit was so close. I was just outside the South Tower when we felt some rumbling so we looked up, and there was the second plane coming in. It looked like we could touch it because it was so close and so big. The ground started shaking and there was a very loud noise, I’m still affected by the noises and the shaking, I still remember them very clearly. At that point we started to rush everybody out.

Photo credit: David Blacksberg

There were people running all over the place, many of them were running towards us and away from the towers. I started coordinating ambulances. I worked to help triage and treat people, among whom a person who was very badly burned, then I went over the radio to inform everybody where the incident command post was set up and that we had started receiving people that were coming out of the buildings. I don't know whether they heard me or not, because there was a whole lot of chaos.

The ALS unit took the burn victim to the Burn center at Cornell Hospital, I wouldn’t see those colleagues for at least two weeks, we all thought the other had perished and embraced each other when we finally met. My partner and I remained at the scene by ourselves just getting overloaded with a whole lot of patients, and we had no idea if we were going to get more help. People were arriving with different kind of injuries: burns, cuts, bruises and some people were running just scared.

Everybody was saying “There's more people coming” or “There's somebody down in front of the building”. I tried getting closer to the building, but there was a whole lot of debris coming down. We didn't even know what it was. I guess it was metal, and papers and computers, I remember seeing computer stuff on the ground. There were bodies everywhere. We saw and heard people jumping from the building and everyone who was running away was screaming, it was a helpless feeling. Someone said, "There's somebody that's still moving. Somebody is alive" and I also saw a dog that was tied up in front of the building, so I got closer again. I got hit with some debris and I decided not to go.

A couple of units started approaching, I told them where we had set up the staging area, I went back with them and once the vehicles were set up we heard some rumbling. There were already a lot of rumors that a third plane was coming in, so we looked up but there was no plane. It was the South Tower which started to collapse. My partner and I started running together with other people. I looked back, it was like an avalanche, because you could see the smoke and everything tumbling right at you. You couldn't see up, you couldn't see back, and no matter how fast you ran, you wouldn't be able to out run it. It felt like we had run a mile but it was slightly more than just across the street, we went into a building and ducked next to an interior wall. When the rumbling seemed to be over, we went outside to help more people, providing treatment where we could with the little equipment we had in our emergency bags.

Everybody was panicking and we tried to calm people down. One girl was telling me she was from the 63rd floor, and another one was from the 84th. They told me that they ran down and they were still wearing high heels. We tried to joke around a little bit like “How in the world are you running with these shoes on?” even though it wasn't really a joking situation, but you had to calm everybody down.

Photo credit: David Blacksberg

After a while we heard the rumbling again and people started grabbing my arms. A person was holding my left arm, another person was holding my right arm and a line of people were behind us. I started running and I led them south towards the ferries. We found buses in Battery Park City, I put people on those buses and told them “You’ll be safe!”. I ran back to the command post, but I had to leave it again to take more people away to safety. I took them to the ferries where they were taken to Ellis Island, Jersey City and Staten Island. Then I again I went back.

From this moment my timeline becomes very blurred and it’s difficult to remember when things took place and how.

I was there the first 48 hours: all day on the 11th and all day on the 12th straight, with no rest. On the night of the 11th I tried to rest on the second floors of one of the buildings at Ground Zero. I tried to sit back and relax but there was so much going on that I didn’t sleep at all, so I went back and started to help again. I did have a personal communications plan and my cellphone was working so I contacted two people: my sister, who contacted my family, and my best friend, who contacted all my friends. I was also deeply touched that some close friends reached out to check on me those first two days.

I was on the east side treating patients and we also had a lot of firefighters and police officers from NYPD that we were treating as well. We were very hungry and thirsty, and for the first days we had no equipment like masks, it was very difficult to see and breathe. Everything was stuck in our noses and throats, eyes, mouths, face and everything; so we were taking water and washing everybody as much as we could. After two days I found my ambulance, completely covered in dust, I put my shirt over my face and my nose and I drove back to the station; I could not find anybody else from my station because in the chaos we got separated. When I got there it was a scary moment because we didn’t know who was alive and who wasn’t, I was welcomed with open arms; everyone thought that I had perished.

I had been there at least three days a week till March. During that time we were able to check in with some of the supervisors, lieutenants and captains to let them know we were okay.

Photo credit: David Blacksberg

Undicisettembre: Did you see World Trade Center 7 collapsing?

David Blacksberg: I did not see it, but I heard it and felt it. I was treating people and we assumed there were more buildings that would be coming down, we thought we were at a safe distance. But I did feel the ground moving.

Undicisettembre: While there on 9/11 when did you guys understand it wasn’t an accident but a terrorist attack?

David Blacksberg: We knew, or at least we felt it was intentional right away. When we saw the first plane going in it looked to us it was intentional, just from the angle the plane was turning. When we were at the site and saw the second plane coming in, that was the confirmation for everybody.

Undicisettembre: Were you guys expecting the towers to collapse? Or maybe you didn’t even have time to think of this possibility?

David Blacksberg: In all the experiences I had of responding to disasters and emergencies there are things we don’t really think about, but plan for and prepare for. I never expected the towers to come down, but I was conscious it was possible. If you have a huge jetliner going into a huge building, there’s the potential for almost anything to happen.

I responded to many different fires, explosions and medical emergencies and this was unique because of the magnitude.

Undicisettembre: You had been to Ground Zero till March, which is seven months. What did you guys do in that period?

David Blacksberg: Our role was to help treat any of the first responders, such as firefighters, police officers, and others who may become injured during the search and rescue and eventually search and recovery efforts. There were times that we were also part of the bucket brigade, but that wasn’t our main function; they were picking up remains we took those remains and brought them to the coordination of on-site morgue.

Undicisettembre: How does 9/11 affect your everyday life even today?

David Blacksberg: I am reminded of it all the time, because I did get sick from the air and I retired on disability.

We didn’t have masks and equipment that EMS and firefighters have today, so I went through a number of medical exams afterward, also because I had some minor injury to my knee and my elbow. They followed me for a couple of years and saw how I was becoming affected, I was informed that I had developed some lung issues because of the breathing and I was then retired on disability. I have to take medicine everyday and I follow up with the doctors every year.

Photo Credit: David Blacksberg

Undicisettembre: Now that you live in California do you ever go back to the site?

David Blacksberg: Yes, I go back to New York every year. When I go back to see my family and my friends I make an effort to go back to the site. I bring my children, my son is ten and my daughter is eight, and I explain to them what happened. They have no problems asking me questions and I have no problems telling them about it.

I already went twice this year, one of the times was on New Year’s Day. I brought my children, my nephews and my niece. My nephews and niece don’t know all the details from me, so I started to share more with them about what I experienced.

I go back because of the people that I know and knew who are suffering through injuries or illness or my colleagues and others who perished. I don’t have to go back to keep them in my mind and heart, I go back to keep the memory and meaning of what we did and how we came together as a nation afterwards. While I was there last December I received a notice that another colleague of mine had passed that week from cancer caused by 9/11. I go back to memorialize and to make sure I don’t forget. Nobody should forget and we should all work together. After 9/11 the United States of America truly became united, but the more distant you become from an incident that brought people together the more people get separated. I try to make sure that people stay together with any role that I can play. I moved to California seven years ago and it’s very interesting from what I share to know how people here tell me how they were affected, even if they were all the way across the country they were united with their communities. I speak at my children’s elementary school and any other engagement to share my experience of responding and being prepared.

Undicisettembre: How do you think the nation lives today? Is it more secure than in 2001 or do you think something of the sort can happen again?

David Blacksberg: It doesn’t matter where you live. In the Unites States or the rest of North America, in Europe, in Asia, so long as someone thinks differently or wants power, some may resort to terrorism or war to gain what they feel is right. Absolutely an intentional, terrorist incident or war of this magnitude or worse can happen again, there’s no doubt. It’s just a matter of being prepared, aware and alert, and making sure everybody is working together. Being ready starts from the individual and involves local entities as well as state and federal agencies. It truly is vital to have a collaborative working relationship. It improves everyday.

Injuries and death don’t necessarily require using a physical weapon anymore, they can be caused by cyberattacks. If somebody uses a cyberattack to affect the electrical grid or other infrastructure society relies on, they can affect millions of people. Turning off the electricity affects everyone: businesses and healthcare systems down to the individual who relies on electrical medical aid, they can perish. So it’s not necessarily face-to-face combat, but also someone behind a computer who can cause harm. The same can be done by infiltrating water supplies to create illness. There are so many different ways to affect the health, safety and wellbeing of the individual and the country.

It is really important to know the various hazards you may be vulnerable to in your home community or where you may be visiting. I want to encourage everyone to have a communications plan, health and safety plan, at least one bag with essential supplies and documents and to test that plan. There is so much you can do to help yourself, your family and your community. Just one thing a day can make a difference in how you may be affected by a man-made or natural disaster.

If somebody wants do to something harmful there’s always a way, but it’s a matter of being ready to respond to that.

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