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The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, began as "a magnificent late-summer, early-fall day," recalls Peggy Fracaro, RN, MA, CIC, infection control director at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City. That morning she was in her office, having arrived to work before the first attack began. The hospital is located at 168th Street and Broadway, with a clear view of downtown. "We heard in my office that a plane had gone into the World Trade Center," she recalls. "Everyone thought it was not a commercial plane but just a plane that got lost. It was crystal clear here."
A radio had been turned on, and then word came that a second plane appeared to have deliberately crashed into the other tower. "There was this sense that we had been attacked. We looked out our offices because you can see the Hudson River and the George Washington Bridge," Fracaro says. "One of my concerns was that the bridge was next. If they wanted to isolate Manhattan, that would be a place they would [target]." She called the safety department to see if disaster plans were going into affect. Shortly thereafter, the announcement was made that the hospital was in disaster mode.
"We discharged patients, cancelled all elective surgery, readied the emergency department, and called everybody back to work," Fracaro says. "We were told to stay for the duration."
As the wait for the wounded began, Fracaro joined other health care workers on a connecting bridge off the 11th floor with a good view of downtown. "We looked out and saw the cloud, which was extremely visible, then you could see the second building go down. You could see just the cloud, but the cloud increased, the cloud just expanded and got much darker. There were a lot of hospital people up there looking, just dumbfounded."
Expecting an onslaught of patients, Fracaro was ready to assist in any way possible beyond her infection control expertise. "If we luckily had an influx of 2,000 people than we would have done some other kinds of duties," she says. "We were prepared to do that, whatever it would take. I’ve been out of patient care for a while, but I would have been pretty comfortable with transporting or feeding patients or doing some elementary kinds of stuff. We were ready, but I think that it was clear by late in the day that there were many more dead than [those] we could hope to save."
According to information from the hospital system’s web site, 38 of the Trade Center victims sought care at Columbia Presbyterian and 117 patients were treated at its sister institution at New York Weill Cornell Medical Center. The next day, staff learned that three emergency medical technicians from the Cornell site were killed in the collapsing wreckage, she says.
"It was hard to concentrate," Fracaro says. "Meetings were cancelled and people were subdued. The phones were not ringing a lot. People were very sad. There was this big profound sense of loss, but a recognition that we had to do a job." Trauma counseling was provided for employees. But amid the devastation, a city’s spirit shone through. "Fourteen hundred people lined up to give blood," she says. "That’s what happened all over the city. It was very controlled chaos. I can’t tell you how this city pulled together. It was just a remarkable feat. The fact is, I went home by subway that first night. I was able to actually take a subway and then a bus home in the middle of this disaster. That’s pretty remarkable."
Fracaro lives downtown, on the East Side of Manhattan. "Later in the week, when the wind shifted you could smell what those [rescue workers] had been smelling. It was this acrid smell. It wafted up at night to cover Manhattan. There is nothing like the smell of that to make you feel that you were really there at ground zero."