Debi Ryan was a Port Washington resident and volunteer paramedic who was commuting to her job as a Professor of Emergency Medicine at the Borough of Manhattan Community College on the morning of September 11, 2001. Upon witnessing the first plane hit the North Tower from the train, she made the decision to get to the World Trade Center to offer her assistance as an EMT. In this oral history interview, Ms. Ryan describes her traveling by subway to the site of the World Trade Center during the tower collapse, the scene at Ground Zero immediately following the collapse, and her efforts to evacuate and provide emergency medical services to the firefighters, police, and civilians near the scene in the hours following the attack, including participating in the rescue of a Port Authority cop whose legs were pinned under the North Tower antenna at the bottom of a sixty-foot crater in the rubble.
“So I started to, to work my way up the steps through the debris, and the only reason I realized that I’d actually made it outside, is suddenly things were hitting me in my head…Suddenly, things were coming down, and then all you could see, I mean I could not see my hand in front of my face here. There was just, everything seemed to be like fluttering and on fire. There was just lots of paper on fire and just coming down, and ash just coming down like snow. And you couldn’t see anything…and then suddenly I heard some guy’s voice, and he’s like ‘Follow the sound of my voice.’ So we moved to him…I said to him, I’m like ‘What happened?!’ Because it looked like the end of the world, and all I could think was, ‘Oh my God! It’s…[here]…Or if we’ve been struck by nuclear weapons, where are my kids,’ who were in Port Washington in school, right? And of course, then he said to me, ‘The World Trade Center came down.’”
“I did…rapid triage for the next six hours. There were a lot of people that came through. After six hours, what became really eerie is that it stopped. It seemed to all stop. And we were all, at that point, super-prepared, you know. The mindset was, you know, all right, we took care of the walking wounded, you know, now get ready, ‘cause now comes the real stuff. And we waited and waited, and it wasn’t comin’. And so then it became much, much more fright[ening]…we were like, ‘Well where, where are they? How could they not be here? You know, there’s a lot of people in those buildings. Where are they?’”
“…about ten-thirty that night, about then that night is when it started. People started coming to the hospital and asking for people. Saying, you know, ‘Have you seen my…’ you know, or ‘I need this person or that person.’ And you’d go down the list and see whether or not they were on the list or not. And that was probably a very difficult thing to do, especially if you go, ‘Well, all right, well what floor were they on?’ You know, ‘They were on the ninety-second floor.’ So, you know, how do you look at somebody and go, ‘I haven’t had a whole lot of people survive from that floor.’ It was just like, ‘Well, they didn’t come through here. It doesn’t mean they didn’t go somewhere else, but they didn’t come through here,’ you know. ‘And I’m sorry that, you know, I’ll pray for you and keep the search going.’ They kind of knew that if they were up there that it was not there.”
Click here for the full oral history, available on the New York Heritage digital portal. SENSITIVE CONTENT WARNING: This material contains graphic descriptions of injuries, deaths, and/or human remains.