I think of her as the living dead. I talked to the living dead. And I lied to the living dead. I told her to hang on, that help was coming. But I pronounced her dead in my mind. And she knew that. I put a black tag with a small white cross around her neck. And as best she could, she gave me hell for it. The psychiatrists and those from the post-trauma team say it is good for me to talk about her and the rest of that day. They say it is the only way I will come to terms with what happened and finally free my mind of her. So here I am talking to you.
This lady was among a half-dozen people I saw who probably fell a thousand feet or so when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center. I am not sure how she got on the plaza. Maybe she was on her way to Los Angeles and was ejected from the jet by the force of the collision. Or maybe she was an office worker in the tower sitting near one of the windows and she was swept away when the building caved around her. Or maybe she was trapped and jumped to escape the flames, though I don't think so. I happened upon her even before most of those people were seen jumping.
She was an elegant lady. About my age, early fifties. I could see that even with all that she had been through. I could tell that she had her hair done up very nicely. Brunette. She had on tasteful earrings. She was wearing pretty makeup. And in my profession you notice clothes because so often you have to cut them into pieces to save lives. That was the first thing that came to mind: This lady is well dressed....
Triage is the first thing that should be done at a disaster like this. It basically means dividing the injured into four categories so that backup medical teams can move quickly in and give treatment to those who need it most urgently. The categories are indicated by colored tags that are hung around the injured person's neck. Green is the least serious. Yellow more so. Red indicates critical injuries. And black means the person is dead or close to it. When you're engaged in triage, you have one thing in the back of your mind all of the time, My backup is coming. My backup is coming. That's the reason you can tag people who obviously need help and not stop and give it to them right then. You know you need to get everyone tagged, and you know that someone with a medical bag is coming right behind you.
That certainly is what I was thinking when I met the lady in the plaza, the big open space between the two towers that had a fountain ad a round sculpture in the middle. I had finished tagging everyone from the stairwells, when I turned to face the plaza. I had not noticed the people there on my way upstairs because I was in such a hurry and there was such a crowd of firefighters blocking my view out the window. But now I saw something that was so horrific that I am glad I missed it the first time around. When the plane hit, an incredible amount of debris from the collision rained down on the plaza. Most of it was chunks of airplane and building that had little meaning to me. But amid the destruction, there were a half dozen or so people, I ran toward them, my triage tags in hand. There was a man having a seizure and his eyes were rolling into the back of his head. He had struck the pavement so hard that there was virtually nothing else left of him. There were a couple others that I never got to, but I could see from a short distance that they were dead. And then there was the lady with the nice hairdo and earrings.
When I got to her, I ripped out a black tag. What impressed me -- and scared me -- was that she was alert and was watching what I was doing. I put the tag around her neck and she looked at me and said, "I am not dead. Call my daughter. I am not dead." I was so startled that for a split second I was speechless. "Ma'am," I said, "don't worry about it. We will be right back to you." That was a lie. She couldn't see what I could see. Somehow, I guess it was an air draft or something, her fall had been cushioned enough so that she didn't splatter like the others. Still her body was so twisted and torn apart that I could only ask myself, Why is this lady still alive and talking to me? How can this be? Her right lung, shoulder and head were intact, but from the diaphragm down she was unrecognizable. Yet she was lucid enough that she continued to argue with me. "I am not dead," she insisted again. I am convinced she had some medical training because she knew I had given her the black mark of death. And she resented it. "Don't worry about what I put around your neck," I told her. "My coworkers are coming right now. They're going to take care of you."
I knew I had to keep going, but she had so deeply shaken me that I lingered for a second or two. Then I stepped over her to get to the others. I put a black tag on the man having the seizure. But another wave of casualties arrived in the lobby from upstairs, so I needed to return. As I headed back, I stepped over the lady one more time. And as eerie and unsettling as our first encounter had been, the second was even worse. She started yelling at me.
"I am not dead! I am not dead!"
"They're coming, they're coming," I replied without stopping.
"I am not dead! I am not dead!"
I went back to the lobby, putting her out of my mind for now. There was so much that needed to be done. I began tagging the hundreds of people coming out of the building....
I can honestly say that I didn't fear death, though I walked for hours in a wretched place I can only describe with a biblical reference -- "the valley of the shadow of death." I felt death, I heard it, I saw it and I smelled it. And with that lady in the plaza, I even talked to it.