Global Health Nexus, Winter 2002

In Their Own Words

NYUCD Perspectives on September 11: Dr. Kathleen Agoglia, Dr. Giuseppe Bianco, Ruben Cohen, ’02, Dr. Luigi DeCarolis, Dr. Herbert Frommer, Dr. Robert Glickman, Dr. Jerrold Gultz, Dr. Rodney Liebowitz, Mr. Glenn Marrus, Mr. Darryl Warner

On the morning of September 11, Dean Alfano got a call from the Medical Examiner’s office asking for help. The ME’s office badly needed equipment and supplies to manage the process of identifying victims. The Dean asked me to coordinate NYUCD’s efforts, so I organized a team of people who went through our buildings collecting equipment, materials and other needed supplies and piling them onto two flatbeds. Then we set off for the ME’s office.

By 12:30 p.m., it was a surreal scene. The entire stretch of First Avenue from East 23rd Street to the ME’s Office on 30th Street had been mobilized, with the entire right side of First Avenue cleared for police emergency vehicles. TV network trucks and freelance photographers were everywhere. When our team got to 25th Street and First Avenue, a police officer stopped us and asked who we were and what we were doing. When we told them, he saluted and let us through. He also radioed ahead to his colleagues on the next several corners to stop traffic so that we could move ahead quickly, with no questions asked. By 1:40 p.m., we had helped Dr. Kathy Agoglia, a forensics-trained member of our faculty, and the ME’s staff unload the flatbeds. Later that day, Kathy called me and said she needed hundreds of dental treatment forms to record the results of her tests, as well as more instruments and supplies, so we again set off for the ME’s office.

Another faculty member, Dr. Mitchell Bloom, was volunteering to help at a temporary gathering location for families and friends of victims that had been set up at First Avenue and 29th Street. That day the wind shifted and the acrid smoke from Ground Zero began coming uptown. About 2,000 people were lined up, trying to be processed. The shifting winds had created a terrible smell and people on line were having problems breathing. Mitchell called me and said he needed 2,000 face masks, which we supplied immediately.

The images that I saw during that horrible week will never leave me. But I find comfort in the fact that, without fanfare, but in a very meaningful way, NYUCD was there helping throughout the biggest crisis our nation has ever faced.

Mr. Marrus is Director of Quality Assurance.

A few years ago, several colleagues and I formed “First Responders,” a group of health professionals — nurses, dentists, EMTs, pharmacists, and physicians — who are trained in how best to respond to catastrophic events. First Responders sponsors courses in emergency preparedness and seeks to foster public dialogue on appropriate approaches to minimize losses in catastrophic tragedies. First Responders has trained people on the subject of biological and chemical terrorism for nearly two years. And while no amount of training could have prepared us for the terrorist attacks of September 11, one thing that the events did reinforce was the need for health professionals to gain the education that will free us from fear and enable us to participate in the war against terrorism.

When I arrived at the disaster site on the morning of September 11, I saw people jumping from the WTC. I was between 50-75 feet from the first tower when it started to fall. Everyone ran and I fell. Someone fell on top of me and I broke two ribs. Amazingly, however, people remained calm. We got up and dusted ourselves off.

Next, several police officers went with me until we found a dental office, where we loaded a shopping cart with first-aid supplies of every type: novocaine, gauze, syringes, bandages, etc. Suddenly, we felt tremendous shaking, and that was when the second tower came down. One of the casualties was my car, which was totaled.

With the fall of the second tower, the scene changed drastically. Everywhere we looked, there was dense, snowy soot. And there was no one around. I was among those who went to the Battery Park Ferry area to set up a morgue. But there were no bodies.

I believe that the dentist’s role in fighting terrorism is to be a resource for law enforcement, to make our offices the safe havens that will allow us to meet the critical public health needs we face today. Training cannot prevent a bioterrorism catastrophe, but knowledge most certainly will help to reduce the impact to ourselves, our families, and those under our care. Education is the key.

Dr. Liebowitz is a lecturer in the NYU continuing dental education program.

For the past 10 years, I’ve been under contract as a forensic dentist working for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City. I’m part of what is known as the “Go Team,” which means that when there is a disaster, my team members and I go to the site to help identify victims.

On September 11, after I got a call from Jeff Burkes, the chief forensic dentist for the ME’s office, I went immediately to my local police precinct, where I got a ride into Manhattan. Initially, we expected upwards of 8,000 fatalities. Once I had assessed the situation at the ME’s office, I realized that we were seriously under-equipped to deal with the expected number of victims. I called Dean Alfano and he was wonderful in arranging for us to have what we needed. I’m so proud of the way NYUCD responded. It saved the day for us. Very quickly, we were up and running. At least 40 percent of the positive identifications were made on the basis of dental records. The remainder were based on fingerprints and DNA, or a combination of the three techniques.

The first day I was at the ME’s office from 10 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. I was back again at 6:30 a.m. And it was like that for most of the first week. I continued to work at the ME’s office for several more weeks and still go there on a volunteer basis.

Thankfully, we had overestimated the number of fatalities, but what we saw was unimaginable. I’m a major in the U.S. Army Reserves, and during the summer I go to Honolulu to train with the Pacific Dental Command there. Pearl Harbor is always cited and studied as the most horrific attack ever on the U.S. It pales in comparison to the events of September 11.

Dr. Agoglia is a clinical assistant professor of Diagnostic Science and Urgent Care.

On Tuesday morning, September 11, I was in an Information Management Meeting at Bellevue Hospital, which happens to be the official Triage Center for Health Care in New York City. At approximately 8:55 a.m., Bellevue’s executive director walked in and asked to speak to the COO and to the hospital’s medical director. As they got up to leave, he turned and told us that a plane had hit the World Trade Center.

Stunned by the news, we quickly disbanded the meeting. I went to the oral surgery clinic at Bellevue, where the television was on but only one channel — a Spanish-language channel — was coming through. That’s when we saw the second plane hit. Thinking that there would be an enormous number of casualties — we estimated 15,000 to 20,000 in each building plus people on the ground — I went across the street to NYUCD to get faculty and residents to go with me to Bellevue’s Emergency Room. By the time we returned, the entire hospital was in disaster mode.

But the thousands of casualties we expected never materialized. We did encounter carloads of people covered in ash who had fled the scene and come to Bellevue to get something for their eyes. Then a firefighter was brought in — already dead. I remember two other people, one a burn victim, the other with a broken hip. But no other victims were brought in. Meanwhile, fighter planes were flying overhead and we got word of bomb scares at both Bellevue and the NYU Medical Center.

The next day our team was assigned to Ground Zero. Everywhere we looked, there was devastation of an order of magnitude that was beyond words. At one point, an alarm went out that One Liberty Plaza, where we were stationed, was about to collapse. Everyone ran for their lives, and as we were running up Broadway, we saw fire engines going in the opposite direction, toward the danger.

Fortunately, it was a false alarm, and by the time we got to Canal Street and Broadway, an amazing thing happened. We saw an NYU Trolley and we hailed it. The driver took us back to Bellevue. Not only that, but we were given an NYU Police escort up First Avenue. Through it all, I remember being overwhelmed by the desire of so many people to help, and by the terrible letdown of finding no one to rescue.

Dr. Glickman is a professor and the chairman of the Mecca Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and the Director of the NYU/Bellevue Residency Program in Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery.

The day after the attacks, Glenn Marrus told me that the Medical Examiner’s office needed supplies — X ray processing machines, film, and mounts. So we loaded up a dolly and wheeled it up First Avenue to the ME’s office.

Then we got word that the ME’s staff couldn’t set up the processors. So I located a brand-new Gendex processor that had been ordered for use in the new 11th floor clinical simulation lab, and went to the ME’s Office to scout out a work area. I found one smack in the middle of the area where they were doing body identifications.

Jim Halprin, a repair technician in the building manager’s office, went with me. Jim and I made the area light tight, and proceeded to build a dark room, virtually from scratch. Then we went back to the College, got the new processor, and wheeled it over to the ME’s office. I want to say that the people at Dentsply were just wonderful. As soon as I told them about donating the new Gendex processor to the ME’s office, they arranged to replace it at no charge.

Amid all the horror, one of the most sobering sights was teams of physicians and medical students waiting eagerly to care for the injured. Sadly, no survivors were coming. The impact on me came later, when I started seeing pictures and hearing stories, especially of my daughter-in-law leaving the subway in the area at Ground Zero when the attacks came. She was one of the fortunate ones who were able to flee the scene.

Dr. Frommer is a professor of Diagnostic Science and Urgent Care and the Director of Radiology.

I’ve been a diener for over 22 years. Not many people do what I do, and I was taught that in a time of disaster, when a large body count is expected, to report immediately to the Medical Examiner’s office and volunteer to help. It turned out that I was the only diener from an academic health center in New York State who showed up to volunteer.

On the morning of September 11, I actually saw the collapse of the twin towers from the window in the area where I work at NYUCD. I went straight to the mortuary building at Bellevue Hospital Center, reported for duty, and started working out of the Bellevue morgue. At 7:30 p.m., the first fatality was brought in. It was a firefighter who had been hospitalized earlier that day and had died of his injuries.

On Wednesday morning, the rescue squads asked that I be assigned to Ground Zero, where I started working with the mortuary team from the Manhattan division of the ME’s office and the New York City crime lab.We identified victims, placed them on mortuary trucks, and, always escorted by police, brought them to Bellevue. I stayed at Ground
Zero for 15 hours each day for three weeks. I still go down to volunteer on weekends. I donate 15 hours each weekend so that other recovery workers can get some relief and spend time with their families.

When I first saw the devastation, it was so overwhelming that I wanted to cry. But I didn’t because I knew I was on a mission — not only to help in the identification of victims, but also to try to encourage the recovery teams, who were under tremendous stress. After awhile, I gained the nickname “the little diplomat,” because I always made time to speak with anyone who looked like they needed a word of encouragement, or just to talk.

One day at Ground Zero we were visited by former President Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. I spoke personally with both of them, and they kept telling me how grateful they were for what I was doing. I told them that I was grateful to them for coming down and offering support. Not only celebrities — but everyone I met — offered encouragement, kindness, and help. The sheer human goodness that came through during the crisis was amazing. For example, a construction worker who came from Ohio to volunteer told me that his boss said he would be fired if he went to New York. He came anyway.

I remember one moment of great jubilation — when four firefighters were rescued from the ruins. Everybody was so encouraged. We thought now, surely, there would be more survivors. There were no more.

Mr. Warner is the diener in NYUCD’s anatomy lab.

As a member of DMORT, the Disaster Mortuary Operation Rescue Team, I was called to action approximately one hour after the first tower collapsed. I had helped to identify victims of the 1988 TWA plane explosion, so I had an idea of what to expect.

Along with other members of the Suffolk County ME’s team, we were taken by helicopter from Stewart Air Force Base in Newburg, New York, to the ME’s office in New York City. There I set up an antemortem area together with another forensics-trained faculty member, Frank Den. We logged incoming dental records on file throughout New York State so that we could run matches on X rays that were being taken in the postmortem section of the ME’s office. I worked there every day for two-and-a-half weeks. At that time, 393 victims had been brought in, 65 of whom were positively identified by dental records.

In 1988, when I closed my private practice for six weeks to help with TWA victim identifications, it cost me $30,000 out-of-pocket. But when you’re involved in a crisis of such indescribable proportions, there is no question about what to do. Just as in 1988, I felt that I was on a mission to help the families of victims of the September 11 attacks. In fact, it was almost an obsession. It was the one thing I could do to help bring a sense of finality to families who would otherwise remain in limbo. I remember that at a memorial service I attended one year after the TWA tragedy, families came over to thank me and hug me. It might sound strange, but the only other time I felt that sense of fulfillment was when I watched my children being born. I hope I’m never called to another mass disaster scene, but if I am, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.

Dr. Gultz is an assistant professor of Cariology and Operative Dentistry.

Right after the towers collapsed, we asked our program director, Dr. Dennis Tarnow, how we could help. He provided us with basic medical supplies, such as eye drops and bandages, and we rode our bicycles down to the disaster site, where we set up an emergency hospital in a damaged building. The hospital we set up was at the border of all the dust. More than 200 firefighters had died by the time we arrived.

Dr. Biano is completing the Advanced Study Program in Implant Dentistry for International Dentists.

Some patients were coming but it seemed that most of the people in the towers had died. We spent a few hours helping rescue workers, putting drops in their eyes, and helping them suture wounds. We were there until 6 p.m., then buildings started to collapse and there were no more patients so we left. The next day we went to the Chelsea Piers rescue center to do what we could, but there were very few survivors.

Dr. DeCarolis is completing the Advanced Study Program in Implant Dentistry for International Dentists.

I was at Mount Sinai doing an externship when I heard about the attacks. Mount Sinai personnel and students were called immediately to a disaster briefing. I’m an EMT, so I got permission to leave and managed to hail an off-duty taxi. I headed straight for Bellevue, where, after about an hour-and-a-half, there were many volunteers, but no patients. So I got on an Emergency Room bus leaving Bellevue to go to the rescue station that had been set up at Chelsea Piers. They were all ready to go with triage there — doctors, nurses, beds, but hardly any patients.

Around 10 or 11 p.m., I found out that EMTs were needed at Ground Zero. So about 20 of us got into five ambulances and were escorted by police to the attack site. We set up a triage area at Stuyvesant High School and then loaded food and medical supplies on a stretcher and carried it down to the American Express building, where we spent the entire night triaging patients.

The air was thick and acrid — we were irrigating peoples’ eyes — probably the number one medical need at the disaster site. When I realized that we didn’t have enough masks, gloves, and goggles, I went into the American Express office and called Mr. Stan Bergman, the CEO of Henry Schein, Inc., who immediately agreed to donate the needed supplies. A police officer helped to coordinate the delivery route. It took the truck driver 12 hours to get to NY from Henry Schein’s supply area in New Jersey. By that time, I had been up for 34 hours straight. Totally exhausted, I finally went home.

Mr. Cohen is a member of the Class of 2002.