For Dr. Robert Lahita – called “Dr. Bob” by his friends, Sept. 11, 2001 began as many days did, with a drive from his home in Ridgewood New Jersey to his office on 66th Street in Manhattan.
Lahita wore a host of hats, including the one he intended to put on that morning as director of rheumatology and immunology at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Yet the hat that proved the most important that day was the one he did not know he would be as the part time director of emergency services at Jersey City Medical Center. Thus as the head for medical operations for the Hudson River water front in Hudson County, he played a key role if an emergency should occur.
He was rarely without his truck full of supplies that included oxygen, medical kits, bandages, gloves and triage tags. Indeed, he was among the key people who had responded to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. He seemed prepared for anything.
On 9/11, however, he thought largely of the patients he had waiting on the New York side of the Hudson River and grew concerned about the backup forming at the Lincoln tunnel. As with most things, he had a back up plan for that, and steered his vehicle to Jersey City where he knew he could park and take the PATH to New York
He was not the kind of man to let small or large obstacles discourage him.
Thinking back later, he realized how differently things might have turned out if he had pressed on with hid rive into Manhattan.
“If I had entered the Lincoln tunnel that morning and parked the car at the hospital, I would have driven directly to the scene and been killed or at least seriously injured,” he recalled in a memoir written for a volume called “Death Takes command.
Fate, however, drew him through the PATH tubes to 33 rd Street where he changed to the New York subway for the rest of the trip.
He arrived at Lexington Avenue at 8:50 a.m. – two minutes after the first plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center eighty something blocks south of where he was.
“As I emerged from the subway I heard the blare of sirens and looked to see a high rise fire engine followed by an ambulance from the Hatzolah Ambulance Corps. I would have paid no attention to the vehicles except to hear the speaker in the ambulance say that there was a huge high rise fire.”
The emergency crew pleaded with pedestrians and drivers to make way.
“Clear the streets,” they yelled.
Lahita later learned that all of the firemen from that unit and perhaps some of the EMTs had been killed in the collapse of the World Trade Center later.
Once he reached his office, he learned from his staff that a plane had struck the World Trade Center. Like many people, he assumed it was an accident, and that it must have been a small plane. But the TV soon dispelled both notions when to his horror, he saw images of a second plan striking the south tower.
He grabbed his jacket and ran out, rushing back towards the subway thinking to recover his truck in New Jersey.
The whole subway ride he felt anxious.
The other passengers seemed unaware of the attack or presumed it was a relatively minor matter. They also likely believed that the slowness of the subway was due to some unrelated police investigation.
At 33 rd Street, he sprinted for the PATH, hoping that the disaster had not yet suspended PATH service to New Jersey.
His train went directly to Journal Square where he finally got a glimpse of the two smoldering towers in lower Manhattan. For many of his fellow passengers, this was the first sight any had had of the attack.
Some stood with mouths open in shock. He didn’t stop. He hurried to his truck and tried to reach emergency services across the river. The airwaves were strangely silent. He drove towards the Holland Tunnel, but was soon directed by Port Authority police to the York Street pier. Already streets of Jersey City were clogged and getting through the traffic was hard even using his siren.
So caught up with the thought that he might not be able to reach the injured, he barely considered the historic significance of the falling towers.
He kept on his mission to reach the pier in time to receive the flotilla of vessels he was certain would be bringing injured to the Jersey side of the Hudson River.
Two paramedics from the Jersey City Medical Center were on the scene when he got there, laying out the injured onto makeshift cots. The south tower collapsed as Lahita pulled up to the pier.
Broken hips, fractured legs, cuts, exposed bones, were among the injuries he encountered. Some people were unconscious. Most were in shock. Some of the firefighters who had seen the worst of the disaster openly wept.
While other triage centers in places like Union City and Secaucus so only a few patients that day, Lahita’s site was overwhelmed. He was in constant need of stretchers and people to help him. He soon drafted bystanders to his cause. If one said he knew CPR, Lahita put him to work at some medical chore.
“Others brought bandages, ripped off the wall of a neighboring building,” he said.
Others brought wheeled office chairs to use as wheel chairs in order to transport the injured from the pier to waiting vehicles.
His tame used everything they could as splints and other needed items.
Eventually more EMTs arrived to transport the injured to area hospitals.
‘There were hundreds of injured, but at the time it seemed like thousands,” he said. “I was told that we saw and treated 1,500 people, and 300 in the first three hours.”
This did not include the pets residents of Manhattan brought with them, for which Lahita had to call animal control.
Later he would make his way to Hoboken, and eventually to Ground Zero where he saw firefighters covered in dust and a landscape littered with body parts.
Most of the victims of Sept. 11, however, found treatment on the New York side of the Hudson, although in total more than 170 hospitals were involved with the rescue effort.
Hoboken, Weehawken, and Jersey City triage centers were manned by hundreds of local doctors. County Office of Emergency Management used school buses provided by the Hudson County Improvement Authority to transport people away from the waterfront. The Weehawken ferry terminal alone saw more than 60,000 people pass through it, fleeing the disaster. The triage center at Liberty State Park treated more than 5,200 people.
Although the ferries have been credited with transporting the majority of people across the Hudson to the Jersey side, emergency personal drafted barges, fishing boats, cruise ships even local cruise boats to get people out.
Reporters of possible chemical contamination forced firefighters and others to wash down most of those fleeing Manhattan. This report, however, may have been the result of odd scents some reported smelling when fleeing the disaster area, most attributing this later to a natural gas leak at the World Trade Center site.
Besides broken bones and broken hearts, people suffered from asthma attacks, smoke inhalation and a number of heart ailment. But of all those admitted to area hospitals on the Jersey side, none died