John Pryor and 9/11: 'They're all dead'
A vivid book penned by his brother offers a personal and intimate account of Dr. John Pryor's life, including responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks
Editor's note: Dr. John Pryor, a combat surgeon, was killed when a rocket blast into a Mosul Air Base claimed his life at 42 on Christmas morning 2008. As we remember the tragedy of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, this excerpt from his memoir, written by his brother, describes searching the rubble for victims when he responded on 9/11. To learn more about Dr. John Pryor's life and to order the book, DrJohnPryor.com.
Mike, Bob and I decided to enter the inner zone, but first we would need to get past the police barricade.
"I can get us past them," Bob said.
"Bob," I said to the ex-Navy seal, "we can't kill anyone. You know that, right?"
"Have it your way," he shrugged.
Our break came at one o'clock in the morning. The danger zone was deemed "safe," and waves of replacement firefighters were being sent in. Next, groups of ems personnel were gathered to go. A call went out for volunteers, and we jumped at the chance. Bob and I joined a group of ten nurses and paramedics. There was one other physician, but I was the only surgeon. A paramedic who had been at ground zero led us through the barrier, and we headed south.
Almost immediately, the scene changed. Darkness enveloped us as we left the staging area. Only our flashlights and headlamps pierced the blackness. The dust was thicker, almost six inches deep in some places. It was like walking through snow. The most unnerving feature, though, was the silence. Even our footfalls were muffled by the dust. Pitch black and quiet, I entered a void between worlds. I couldn't believe this was Manhattan.
As I walked south, the air became heavy. The smell of smoke and dry cement was so thick I could taste it. I donned a mask that had been hanging around my neck all day. It was uncomfortable and suffocating. My eyes began to tear from the caustic smog.
We came upon firemen sitting on piles of rubble. They seemed to be in a daze, absently staring at the destroyed buildings. We stopped at each firefighter to check his condition. Most agreed to eye irrigation, but otherwise refused any care.
Ahead, there was a glow in the darkness. It cast a light against the black background like a giant campfire in the woods.
We stopped at the bridge that led to the financial center. Several pumpers and ladder trucks aimed hoses at the smoldering twisted remains of wtc 6. Runoff mixed with the heavy soot, creating a lake of mud. The team went around flushing eyes. I approached one of the firefighters.
"Do you know if they're extricating victims anywhere?" I asked.
"No way," he said absently. "There's nothing, nobody."
Bob and I surveyed the scene as the medics irrigated eyes. Bob looked east, down Vesey street.
"Nobody's helping those guys down there," he pointed.
"Down there" was a narrow remnant of street now filled with treacherous mounds of sharp, twisted metal. Perched on either side, precipitous girders and debris loomed over the narrow passage. Occasionally a "bang" punctured the silence as debris fell to the street.
Oblivious to the hazards, Bob began gathering a few duffels of equipment.
"Ah …" I started to protest. I glanced down Vesey again before grabbing a duffle.
Right, I thought, this is probably a bad idea.
We started east down Vesey. Soon we were away from the lights and sounds of the pumper. The darkness returned, and I heard my ears ringing in the silence.
I shone my light at the walls of destruction. A shredded facade disappeared into the smoke-filled darkness. Beyond ten stories, nothing was visible. I worried what dangers lurked precariously above my head.
We were flanked by rows of cars that took the brunt of the collapse. Those still with a body were stripped of their paint. Some were reduced to little more than a drivetrain. Even the seats were stripped of their padding, leaving only steel frame and springs. It was like the set of a horror movie.
The dust was now a foot thick with more significant debris. Besides paper, I could identify fragments of office equipment, bits of tables, chairs and computers. Nothing larger than a few inches across.
"Ever see anything like this before?" I asked, my voiced muted by the dust.
"Yeah, sort of," replied Bob.
"You notice anything strange?" I asked, as if there was anything one could add to such a surreal scene. But there was. I sensed it but didn't want to say anything.
"No bodies," Bob answered flatly.
No bodies, I thought.
When I entered the danger zone, I prepared myself for the dead. I saw none. Now, only two blocks from ground zero, there were still no signs of the deceased.
"Looking at the condition of those cars," Bob added, "anyone standing on the street was probably incinerated. The rest are probably under the wreckage."
It was then, in the middle of the destruction of Vesey, among the thousands of ghosts circling the smoldering rubble that I had a sudden grip of fear. The rational part of my brain briefly penetrated my defenses and made an unwelcome appearance.
What the hell am I doing here? I thought.
I had foolishly run into this catastrophe. I put my life in jeopardy without even thinking. What if something happened to me? What would my wife and kids do without me? What if I never saw my children again? Now, as I made my way through this canyon of annihilation, I felt I had bitten off more than I could chew. It reminded me of being on the top of a roller coaster. I suddenly wanted to get off.
I became flushed. My heart started to race. The mask choked my sweaty face, and the feeling of suffocation intensified. I wanted to rip it off, but here the smoke had gotten thicker. It would be worse without it.
I'm panicking, I thought.
In all my years as a paramedic and surgeon, I had never panicked. I was always the one taking control of the chaos. Here the chaos was overwhelming and inescapable. I needed to calm down and regain control. I forced myself to breathe slowly. I stopped looking up and focused on the lights ahead. The hysteria abated, and I regained my composure.
Seriously, I thought, what's the worst that could happen?
A loud crash answered in the darkness behind me.
We arrived at the fire apparatus. Several fixed hoses were spraying another pile of rubble; somehow I identified it as wtc 7. We spoke with the firefighters; none needed medical attention. Most were sitting or standing like statues, despondently staring into the mangled pile. Their faces expressionless, they would answer direct questions but otherwise remained silent.
The whole scene ran counter to my experiences as a paramedic. I had been to many fires and countless car accidents. Usually, there is mayhem with movement, action and shouting of commands. Here, however, were silence and stillness. No rushing. No shouting. No efforts to dig for victims. No attempts to attack the flames. The mood seemed defeated and hopeless. With five city blocks covered with two 110-story buildings, where does one possibly start?
Now, separated from our group, we moved on hoping to find an active search and rescue operation. We followed another narrow street and came upon Church Street. As we moved south along Church, I was suddenly was presented with a view of ground zero.
Holy Jesus, I thought.
A huge metal crown rose amid a field of endless twisted steel and pulverized concrete. It was backlit by raised stadium lights on portable generators. The crown was made from remnants of the external vertical girders that rose for three stories. The steel beams were arranged in a semicircle with the top half fanning out from the ground. Construction crews wielded acetylene torches to slice beams leaning against the crown. I wondered why they were attacking those girders in particular.
Throughout the day, I had heard rumors of buried victims making cell phone calls from beneath the rubble. I thought it was doubtful, but if there were any chance of saving someone tonight, it would be here at ground zero.
I found a fire captain and asked who was in charge of medical. He directed me toward One Liberty Plaza, referred to as "Liberty," across from the South Tower. The building was in shambles. The facade appeared bombed with debris hanging from the windows. The smoke was still heavy, and I couldn't see above ten or so floors. The damage seemed so severe that I questioned the integrity of the structure.
Around the corner, we found a few ambulances parked outside the main entrance of Liberty. A surgical resident from nyu had organized a field hospital just inside the lobby. Three cots were surrounded with a fair amount of equipment. There was excellent organization with a triage station outside and two teams inside to render care. Again, there was one problem: No patients.
It was now 3:30 a.m., and I hadn't sat down for a long time. I decided to take a rest and find something to eat. Amazingly, in this crater of desolate destruction, there was plenty of food. On Liberty Street, a station was set up to hand out sandwiches, fruit, water and juice. Even a Burger King being used as a police command station opened its kitchen and started distributing hamburgers.
After a sandwich and a short rest, I walked out to the front of Liberty. The building had an overhang which offered protection from falling debris. The terrace was elevated above street level, providing an excellent view of the heavy metal cutting.
I joined a small group watching the sparks spray into the dark like mini fireworks. A minister from New Orleans attending a conference in the city felt compelled to help. Along with a priest, he tried to identify victims from wallets and ids found in the pile. He also created a temporary morgue for the bodies. So far, there were only six.
A group of firefighters quickly approached Liberty. They were running for the lobby, yelling "Take cover!"
I stood motionless asking, "Take cover from what?" Then I felt rumbling and bolted into the lobby.
I slammed into the side of an elevator shaft and knelt down, hands over my head. The walls shook, and I braced for the roof to cave in on me. A crash outside spawned a dust cloud that flowed into the lobby. Part of an adjacent building had lost its façade, but there was no major collapse.
I made a note not to question running firefighters in the future.
Back in the lobby, I chose an empty cot and lay down. I hoped to get a solid hour of sleep, but just as I closed my eyes, I heard someone in the lobby.
"Is that surgeon in here?" It was one of the ems lieutenants.
I was up in a flash.
"What's going on?" I asked after introducing myself.
"They sent me here to get you and some oxygen," he said. "There's a rescue in the plaza."
I felt an adrenaline surge and eagerly followed the paramedic out of Liberty. We walked past the ironworkers and up Church Street to what was once a wide-open space between the towers. Now, a few steps led to a pile of twisted metal and concrete.
Hell couldn't be any more gruesome.
A baleful darkness permeated the site. Hundreds of crimson eyes burned from the windows of the remaining buildings. The glowing flames mixed with the thick smoke to produce a dark aura. My eyes stung from the toxic vapors.
The footing was murderous. Nothing I stepped on was stable. Sharp, twisted metal shot up from the debris like metal fangs. Black holes of unknown depth pitted the landscape, hungry for a careless step.
I thought of my paramedic training and the first rule of rescue: Don't become a victim.
One fall, one misstep, I thought, and I become a victim.
I made my way toward the center of the plaza. I passed many firefighters, all with the same despondent stare. Some stood near difficult areas to help people across the terrain. So many of their brethren were dead. I wondered how they could still function.
In the distance, flames danced in the windows of every building. Smoke vented from the rubble. There was a lot of shifting of debris, especially if someone walked too close to a pit. Rescuers coming in from the plaza kept along a line of firefighters, who formed a path. This marked the safest route in.
As I walked deeper into the plaza, the lights and noise faded until there was again absolute silence. Wind whistled through the building remains. A dull moaning vibrated beneath my feet, and I froze in my tracks. Metal creaked, like the shifting of a ship's hull at sea.
The pile is going to collapse, I thought. I'm going to die.
"Don't worry about that," offered the paramedic. "It's been creaking like that all night."
His reassurance was negligible. I pressed on.
We passed between the burned-out structures of wtc 4 and wtc 5. Fires continued to burn in both buildings, especially the top floors. I was amazed they remained standing. I paused to look at the building on my right. Part of the roof seemed to have an odd overhang. It took a minute to realize the structure was a huge piece of wall that had impaled the side of the building.
That doesn't look stable, I thought.
The wind shifted. For a moment, the smoke cleared revealing the tortured remains of the North Tower. I recognized the distinctive outer columns that once formed the base of the building. It was like observing a loved one in the casket. As silly as it sounds, this was the first time I accepted the fact that this was the wtc. It really happened.
Death surrounded me. Not the death I was used to—a single death come for a single patient. Here, death was everywhere, walking the pile and swooping through the darkness like broomstick-riding witches.
I'm standing on thousands innocent souls, I thought.
My eyes welled up and began to tear. I fought it, shook my head and shined the flashlight in my eyes. The feeling passed. Usually in a tragedy, there are things to do, patients to treat. The activity protects the rescuer from the emotional devastation. The lack of patients was becoming a serious psychological burden.
Halfway through the pile, we met up with a battalion chief in radio communication with the rescue team. The victim was confined in a deep hole, buried up to his chest. A surgeon and er doc were down in the hole with him.
"They were able to dig him out to his thighs," the chief informed me.
"Both legs?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said.
"Amputation isn't an option at this level," I explained. "If you try to cut his legs, he'll bleed to death before you could get him out."
"Are you sure?" he asked.
"Just because someone is going to die doesn't mean you have to kill him."
It was a phrase I used frequently with my residents, and it just slipped out. I regretted saying it, but the chief understood what I meant.
A second rescue effort started in a nearby hole, and I went to investigate. This victim was not seriously trapped, and rescuers were able to quickly extricate him. The man was uninjured and didn't require my care. A paramedic started an IV, and the patient was carried from the pile.
It was one small victory, but there was an immediate boost to morale. Rescuers awakened as if a spell had been lifted. Firefighters began to spread out and search holes and crevices with renewed vigor. I was called back to the battalion chief.
"What's up?" I asked.
"The guy is vomiting," he said. "They need a drug, comrasine or something."
"Compazine. I don't have any." I hadn't brought any medications with me. There was none at the aid station either.
"And they want blood, too," added the chief.
"We'll have to send someone to the hospital to get it," I said.
We sent a runner to nyu downtown hospital for the medications and blood.
There was more chatter on the radio and the chief turned to me: "The Doc says he needs some equipment down in the hole. He's not saying much because he doesn't want to upset the patient."
I imagined the surgeon was considering a field amputation but didn't want to say it over the radio. I thought of how I could confirm this. "Ask him if he needs the Gigli," I said. A Gigli is a flexible wire saw used by surgeons to cut bone. It would be needed for any amputation attempt.
I heard the crackling response over the radio, "That's affirmative on the Gigli."
Shit! I thought. Back in Philadelphia, in the office of Dr. Dabrowski, a Gigli saw and amputation equipment lay uselessly in the dark.
I double checked my equipment, but there was no saw.
"What do we do?" asked the chief.
"Send another runner to the hospital," I said. "The other guy is going to take a while before he gets back."
As we waited for the saw, I observed the activity of the firefighters. One hole was very deep, and they were calling for a 34-foot ladder. When the ladder finally arrived, the firefighters explored the hole, but no one was found.
With the increased activity, firefighters were finding body parts. A hand was found and brought to one of the doctors. He took it, and became frantic. He tried to remove the wedding band. "We might be able to identify her by the ring," he said. It was not the time or place for identification, and the doctor was spooking the firefighters. I had to walk over and relieve him of the hand.
Other parts were found, including a decapitated torso. It was close to twenty hours since the attack, and the remains had begun to smell. The fetid odor reminded me of my paramedic days when neighbors called 911 because of a bad odor coming from an adjacent apartment. Other parts smelled of charred flesh. I spoke with the battalion chief about the remains.
"There's no way we can put each piece in its own body bag," I said. "We should set up a temporary morgue to place all the remains. Then forensics can take over when they get here."
The chief agreed.
I sent a medical resident on a quest to find body bags. He dutifully returned with a package, but when we opened it, we found hazmat garments. We did our best, wrapping the remains with what we had. I ordered the torso to the morgue at Liberty. It was the closest thing to a body I saw all day.
The runners had returned with the compazine and Gigli, but the hospital had refused to release blood. In the end, neither was needed. The victim was extricated without the need for amputation and was transported to the hospital. Again, there was nothing for me to do.
I was cold for the first time in the twilight just before dawn. Police were handing out coats to other volunteers and rescuers. I noticed they were brand new coats that still had the price tag attached. I declined a coat and donned an or gown instead.
The sun rose. Light was shining—not only a new day, but a new era. In the blink of an eye, the world I'd grown up in had ended. Like many Americans, I had believed the United States was impenetrable. In the light of day, the destruction was unbelievable. Bombed-out buildings and smoldering rubble were the realm of Third World countries on distant continents, not lower Manhattan.
Like Britain during the blitzkrieg, I thought.
The paucity of workers overnight conveyed a sense of intimacy and isolation, but soon there would be thousands working on the pile. I imagined an army of rescue workers would soon descend on lower Manhattan.
I heard a radio report that hundreds of health care workers were still standing ready at Chelsea Piers and each of the hospitals. I wondered what they were waiting for. I was one of ten doctors at ground zero; it turned out to be ten more than were needed.
At 10:00 a.m., I packed up my duffle and made my way north on Church Street. When I arrived at Chambers, I noticed a large crowd contained by a police barricade. I ducked under the yellow police tape and was instantly accosted by a swarm of reporters. There were people from the New York Times, Daily News and some European papers.
"What's your name?" someone asked.
"What were you doing there?" added another.
I kept walking and answered some basic questions without elaborating. I didn't want to be rude, but I was exhausted and emotionally drained.
Then I was approached by a reporter from 1010 wins. I felt obligated to stop because I felt 1010 wins helped me get here in the first place.
"What's the rescue effort like?" the reporter asked.
"There is no rescue effort," I replied solemnly.
"Well, if there were thousands of people in the buildings and there is no rescue effort, what does that mean?" he asked.
I returned a look of despair but wouldn't give him the sound bite he was looking for.
They're all dead, I thought.