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A Shelter Island EMT recalls 9/11

On a brilliantly clear September day in 2001, a team of volunteer EMTs from Shelter Island climbed into two ambulances fully loaded with emergency medical supplies and drove west.

The team — composed of Helen Rosenblum, Ed Boyd, Faye Rodriguez, Chris Drake, Ed Kotula, Peter McCracken, Bud Fox, Ken Klenawicus and the late Ben Jones — headed to lower Manhattan where a terrorist attack had just brought down the twin towers of the World Trade Center. The crews weren’t sure what they would find when they got there, but they expected it would be survivors in need of medical services.

Like the J.F.K. assassination and the first moon landing, anyone old enough to remember can tell you where they were when they first heard the news, including EMT Peter McCracken, who recalled the events of  years ago.

“I was sitting at STARs Coffee Cellar when the pager went off,” Mr. McCracken said. “We all met at the ambulance barn. We didn’t know how long we’d go for, so we went home and packed a small bag.”

Back then, the Shelter Island ambulance corps was operated by the Red Cross. After leaving the Island, the team first stopped at Red Cross headquarters in Mineola before being dispatched by New York City EMS to lower Manhattan.

“I have never driven on the LIE with no other cars heading west. That was a very eerie feeling,” Mr. McCracken said. “We got from Shelter Island to Manhattan in an hour and a half with no cars.”

Driving through Queens, the team saw the smoke rising from lower Manhattan.

Mr. McCracken’s ambulance crew was stationed under the Brooklyn Bridge while a second Island ambulance was sent farther north. He can still recall the smell of debris that hung in the air. Though he expected to assist victims of the collapse, he soon realized that wouldn’t be the focus of the team’s services.

“We were fully prepared, but by the time we got there, there was really nothing to be done,” Mr. McCracken said. “It was all over with – the only thing going into the Ground Zero zone was heavy rescue. We handed out respirator masks and helped the fireman and heavy rescue crews decontaminate. We were really just dealing with the city’s EMS people.”

He remembers the dust, the darkness and the quiet, with no traffic, no cars, and no people walking around.

“It was still unbelievable,” Mr. McCracken said.

The Island ambulance crews stayed at their posts throughout the night. Shortly before dawn on the morning of September 12, they headed back home.

Though the crew wasn’t able to help victims of the collapse, as they had expected, Mr. McCracken is proud to have been involved in the effort to provide assistance to New York City’s EMS workers. He said he still thinks about that brilliant blue day, particularly when the anniversary rolls around, and sometimes goes down to see the new Freedom Tower and the area where he was stationed that night a decade and a half ago.

“We were honored that little Shelter Island got to go in and help out,” Mr. McCracken said.

Originally published on September 11, 2016