The Pennington First Aid Squad in curly text

Recognition and Remembrance

by Julie Aberger

This speech was given to members of the Pennington First Aid Squad and their guests at its annual dinner late spring of 2002. Readers should be aware that all Hopewell Valley first aid squads sent crews and ambulances either on September 11 or in the aftermath of the recovery effort.

I would like to take this opportunity to recognize the Pennington First Aid Squad for its participation in the New York City World Trade Center disaster on September 11, 2001.

We've all heard the stories of the heroes of the NYPD and the FDNY who responded to the tragedy, and especially of those brave souls who went into the towers to help others, and didn't come out. Occasionally mention is made of the emergency medical services workers, but because EMS in New York City is under the authority of the fire department, the distinction between the two is not often made.

Even more frequently overlooked is the sizeable contribution made in the aftermath of the disaster by New Jersey EMS, particularly its volunteers. On September 11, some 450 New Jersey ambulances responded to the MCI. More than 80% of those rigs were manned by volunteers, and the Pennington First Aid Squad was among them.

At 11:30 that morning, our squad was dispatched to stage at the Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, directly across the Hudson River from Manhattan. No on knew the number of casualties at the World Trade Center, nor did we know the relative safety of the scene. It was possible that the city was still under attack.

In spite of this, the Pennington First Aid Squad ambulance left at 1:00 PM with a crew of six on board, and another eight at the squad building to cover our calls. Ambulance 151-2, a.k.a. "The Hog," driven by Leo Castenada, carried EMTs Kirk Schmitt, Zay Risinger, Steve Friedman, Eldrid Truelove, and myself. At the building were Linda Silver, Heather Varasse, Glen Gabai, Dan Walker, Mike Briehler, Arlene Bowes, Joel Orland, Jack Ferrara and Bonnie Schmitt. Many other members called from work to offer their immediate assistance if needed.

Arriving at the Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands, we staged with more than 100 other ambulances. From where we stood, thick clouds of smoke were clearly visible at the World Trade Center site across the river. At the staging areas around us, EMTs, medics, nurses and doctors worked quickly to establish triage, treatment and transport areas. There was still virtually no radio communication with New York City; no one knew the disposition of patients or when or where they would arrive. Being without information was a rare experience for the EMS personnel; it left us less than easy.

At 5 PM when WTC Building 7 collapsed, we witnessed a sudden explosion with a huge cloud of smoke. "I hope that's not a mushroom-shaped cloud," muttered Kirk Schmitt anxiously. My blood froze as we watched the cloud take shape. At that moment I understood the horrible nature of war and the imminent possibility of being swept away by a nuclear blast.

A few hours later, we received orders to restage in New York City. Thirty or so rigs lined up single file and together we drove the final leg into the city. It was a journey I will never forget. Other than emergency vehicles, the roadways were deserted; public traffic has been banned. As we exited the Holland Tunnel, the city lay unnaturally still, paralyzed by the horror of the attack. Teams of shocked, scared, silent New Yorkers crowded the avenue sidewalks. With lights blazing and sirens blaring our entourage accelerated past them. I felt very proud: At the moment crowds of New Yorkers were seeing the inscription on the side of our rig: "Pennington First Aid Squad". It didn't matter that they had no idea of where Pennington was, or who we were. What mattered was that our squad was one of hundreds, if not thousands, of trained EMS organizations who had sent volunteer members to assist in the largest disaster to occur within the United States.

That night, we never saw a patient. Hardly anyone did. As we waited long hours, the horrible significance of our inactivity slowly dawned on us. Those who had miraculously withstood the initial building collapses had walked out. No one else had survived. Early next morning we returned home with a wrenching frustration borne of our inability to do more.

Later that week, Pennington First Aid Squad was requested to send two more crews. The first crew that traveled to NYC and put in duty at ground zero included Cindy Orlandi, Debbie Gorczycki, and Matt Burd. The second crew, which was subsequently canceled, included Kris Cope, Linda Silver and Scott Sferra. Others from our ranks answered the call. Member Mark Reading traveled with Capital Health System in his capacity as paramedic. Squad members Jan Crum and Alice Freeman responded later in the week with the Union Fire Company Rescue Squad of Titusville, their primary squad affiliation. Also our colleagues from Hopewell Valley's 159 responded on September 11. Those Hopewell Valley EMTs deserve recognition as well.

We need to remind ourselves that, while history is what happened to someone else at some other time, what constitutes history is what living people do, or experience in the here and now. What we were trying to do that day was not be heroes or make history. We were there because we were both trained in first aid and naturally inclined to help others who had been thrust into harm's way without provocation.

Simply said: We did our duty. Tonight I recognize that diligence and salute my colleagues and my squad for their outstanding performance.

World Trade Tower fire from Meadowlands

PFAS EMT Steve Friedman (center) and Leo Castenda (right) look on from Meadowlands staging area as WTC burns.