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A United Hatzalah EMT Talks About His Experience As A First Responder in NYC During 9/11
This Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the tragedy of September 11th, 2001. Most people who were old enough remember exactly where they were and what they were doing the moment they found out what happened. Most people still feel the sorrow and fear that weighed the day down so heavily that people couldn’t move. Most people remember having front-row seats to what was happening in front of their TVs. But many remember the horrific day in a different light; they actually had front-row seats. These people, whether they were actually at ground zero, close by, or just in the city, can still tell you everything that happened from 8:46 a.m. and on that dreadful Tuesday.
One of the thousands of people who were first responders on 9/11 is a resident of Efrat and a United Hatzalah volunteer. His name is Eric Andron.
In the early ’90s, Eric watched his grandmother collapse in front of him and felt helpless that he could not do more to help. In 1996, he became an EMT in his hometown of Boca, Florida, and was an on-call EMT in Boca for the religious community. In 2001, he was living in NY, studying at Yeshiva University, and a few months away from marrying his lifelong partner, Heather. Eric joined the Washington Heights Hatzolah (Radio Y41) when he was a student at YU.
Eric and Heather a few months after 9/11, right before their wedding
On that infamous morning, Eric remembered, he was still sleeping when another Hatzolah member woke him up. “Eric, don’t you hear your radio! A plane just went into the World Trade Center!” Eric had no idea what he was talking about and after waking up a bit, turning on his radio, and hearing what was going on, did he realize that he was needed downtown.
The ambulance that drove the other local first responders had already left so Eric, together with three other Hatzolah members, got into a car that had sirens and lights and began to drive down the West Side Highway. In the car, still shocked by the news, Eric told his friend, Ryan, also a Hatzolah member, that they would be partners and that the other two men would be partners as well, and no matter what happened, they had to take care of one another. The drive was incredibly quick because all exits were shut down and the only vehicles on the highway were first responders. Eric was on the highway driving right after the second plane hit at 9:03 a.m. Eric, Ryan, and the two others now realized that this was no accident. Eric called his parents and told them where he was headed. His parents, who lived in Boca, were watching everything on TV and began to pray for their 23-year-old son, who had been a committed EMT for 5 years, and was now entering a dangerous situation.
Eric’s EMT ID in NYC
When they arrived at the World Trade Center, they saw a lot of chaos, smoke, and fire. A police officer told them to park their car a few blocks away, so they grabbed their equipment and bags and began to walk towards the scene on foot. Eric described the scene as if they were a swarm of first responders all walking towards the location in a long row.
At some point, they began to realize the “things” falling from the top of the building were people jumping off the building and not debris or pieces of the plane falling.
Watching people walking away bleeding and hurt, they tried to figure out what to do first. They were told to stand across the street from the twin towers where there were many fire trucks; about 200 feet across from the front door of the north tower. They were told that the mission was to treat the people that would start coming out of the towers; triage. AMR, hospital staff, Ambulance corps, and Hatzolah- everyone stood waiting for the rush of people that would exit any minute with medical emergencies. The head fire marshal told them to be ready and wait- and then one minute later, there was a tremendous indescribable shaking of the ground and everyone’s legs started buckling in. The marshall turned around to everyone and started yelling “RUUUUUN!!!”
Eric described the scene as an unexplainable few moments. To this day, he does not know if he ran, because there was really nowhere to go, but at some point, he found himself on the floor, hands over his head, with debris and dust raining down with tremendous pressure, almost like a strong wind that pulled everyone down to the floor; some extravagant form of gravity. “Time didn’t exist for those moments,” said Eric trying to find the words. When the pressure finally subsided a bit and the main crashing noise quieted down a fraction, he lifted his head up. Almost like the plague of darkness in Egypt, Eric described that he couldn’t see anything. The air was so thick and grey and he had to wipe his eyes with his sooty hands. He finally took a breath, after realizing he had been holding his breath but inhaled and swallowed dust, ash, and thick residue. His lungs immediately filled with “gook and shmutz” and he realized he was having trouble breathing. Miraculously, he had his EMT bag next to him (which is why he presumed he had not run) and was able to give himself oxygen. He suddenly saw another Hatzolah member next to him and realized he was having trouble breathing. He started alternating the oxygen mask between himself and this fellow first responder. While rotating the mask between them, Eric began to look for Ryan, although he could barely see a few feet in front of him. The quiet after the storm segued right into chaos without much pause. Soon there was screaming, yelling, crying, and an ambiance that mirrored a trapped room. No one knew where to go. Soon, some firemen broke down some walls and windows of the building opposite the towers, a financial building, and they began telling people to go through the building to the other side. All one could hear was screaming mixed with the sound of radios: “I am stuck” “I am trapped” “I’m hurt”- but it was a quasi-state of being, said Eric, who explained how helpless they felt.
There was simply nothing they could do because everyone, all first responders, was being pulled away from the scene in fear that there was a gas leak. Their safety had to come first. The image Eric described is haunting; a stream of white covered sooted people crawling through the broken down windows and door to the financial building, in a row almost like the exit of the split sea, and as each person walked through the “whole to exit”, someone on the other side wiped or washed the person’s eyes so they could see properly. Eric remembers crawling through this area and just waiting to see if Ryan would walk through. With such thick air and darkness, people were only able to see from the flashlights and helmet lights of the firemen. Suddenly, Eric saw Ryan and grabbed him, hugged him, and together they tried to figure out what was next.
Millions of dollars of equipment were lying on the floor- defibrillators, EKGs, EMT bags, and just when people were deciding what to do, Eric and Ryan saw the fire marshall that told them to run as the building began crumbling. The marshall was hysterically crying on the floor and as they approached him they heard him say that he had just sent in 5 battalions into the building right before it collapsed and he was completely distraught.
The marshall was taken away and then they found another firefighter who was hit in the head. He was alert but not coherent so they grabbed him and tried to run to an ambulance. The unity was beyond anything that ever existed in NYC, it didn’t matter who you were, where you came from; everyone was just reaching out to help. The ambulances and equipment were now open to anyone, so Eric and Ryan opened the doors to some random ambulance on the opposite side of the building behind the towers and saw that the entire inside was filled with ash. A paramedic soon took over.
Suddenly, right after the second building collapsed, with much commotion, they were ushered to walk towards Battery Park along the Hudson. Everyone was being told to walk that way and as they began to walk, they saw hundreds of people on the floor, hurt, crying, crawling, and having trouble breathing. Since they did not have the proper equipment to help people breathe, such as oxygen tanks, they tried to help people as much as possible by advising them how to breathe.
The idea was to get to Battery Park and set up a triage for the survivors, but the first responders were told to get on the ferries and cross the short distance into NJ. The thinking was that because there might be a gas leak, and because other buildings also might collapse, everyone should be evacuated from the area. They hesitantly got onto a ferry, and in a scene that was straight out of a war zone, they were brought to Hoboken, NJ. They were greeted by many ambulances and equipment and the entire area was ready for triage. They were told that injured people would be coming on the ferry and brought to Hoboken for treatment and again, that all first responders should be ready for a difficult few hours of treating hundreds and maybe thousands of injured individuals. After 30 minutes of waiting, not one ferry arrived and they began to surmise that most people had not survived. There were over 100 EMTs just waiting.
After some time, Eric and Ryan realized they were not needed, no one was coming, and they had to take care of themselves after the trauma they experienced. They decided to go back to Ryan’s home in Teaneck where Ryan’s family lived. They hitchhiked back and after showering and drinking water, Eric began to call his worried bride and his parents to say he was safe.
The next day, he went back to Washington Heights and he, together with all first responders, was requested to return to the scene. Eric understood they were not going to treat people but more realistically, search for dead bodies. Search and rescue were not why he had joined Hatzolah, so he decided not to go back to the scene.
He didn’t return to the scene until 3 months later when he needed to be in the area to buy a suit for his wedding which was in January 2002. It was very hard for him to return to the area and he has never gone back since.
A few weeks ago, Eric was in Miami and he happened to drive past the area of the building that recently collapsed in Surfside. All around the area, there were flowers and candles and pictures of people and he had a sudden and very distant flashback of all the subways and stations filled with pictures of missing people or RIP signs with faces after 9/11- he hadn’t had a memory triggered like that in a long time.
Eric made aliyah with his wife in 2010. After approaching MDA to join as an EMT, and being told he wasn’t needed, he didn’t volunteer for a few years. However, when his very close friend, Ari Fuld z”l, was murdered on September 16th, 2018, he decided to join the United Hatzalah EMT course that was created in his memory in Efrat. He “graduated” as a volunteer with United Hatzalah at its first NREMT course in Gush Etzion, in Ari Fuld’s Memory. Since September 2019, Eric has been an active volunteer in the Gush Etzion chapter.
Eric in his UH attire
Eric and his family
Eric, in a moment of reflection, realized that he never had any medical issues from 9/11 nor did he endure severe PTSD or emotional trauma. He dealt with the memories in his own way through what he calls “self-healing”; like training in martial arts and becoming a black belt as one example.
Eric and Ryan are in close touch until this day.
May the memory of the 2,996 people who perished be a blessing.