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Reflecting on 9/11: CAVA members recall difficult decisions, restlessness after attacks

Sunday, September 11, 2011
Leah Greebaum / Columbia Spectator

“Are we going?”

Joshua Marks, the captain of Columbia Area Volunteer Ambulance, or CAVA, had just woken up.

“Going where?” he asked the frantic voice on the other end of his ROLM phone line.

“Turn on your TV!”

Marks switched on his television just in time to see the second plane crash into the Twin Towers.

Minutes later, he stood at CAVA headquarters in the basement of Carman Hall, surrounded by his entire team of volunteer emergency medical technicians.

Everyone wanted to know the same thing: how could they help? How could they get down there?

Tom Gorman, CC ’04 and a CAVA volunteer, said he remembers “chomping at the bit” to join the rescue effort.

“I think the universal reaction of everyone that day was helplessness. We felt like we were sitting on campus and not much was going on, meanwhile we were watching the news and hearing that people downtown needed help,” he said, adding that news reports were indicating that there would be tens of thousands of survivors.

The CAVA team was split.

Many wanted to go downtown, but Marks and others said they couldn’t abandon their posts on campus.

“At that point in the morning we still did not know what else might happen and what the extent of the attacks might be,” Marks said. “Public Safety was concerned as Columbia is a prominent Manhattan target as well.”

In the days following the attacks, CAVA proved an invaluable service to Morningside Heights. Marks and other students fielded calls from across the Upper West Side, while other local ambulance services stationed themselves downtown.

By the end of the day, CAVA volunteers were attending to twisted ankles and dehydration, as people who had walked home from the Financial District after the attacks began to trickle in.

But Gorman and several others headed downtown. One group took a cab and their zealous driver ran every red light from 116th Street to Canal Street to get the EMTs to the disaster zone as quickly as possible.

Gorman and four others hopped into a borrowed station wagon and looked for a triage center where they’d be needed.

At St. Vincent’s Hospital downtown, “there were literally 500 doctors, standing there outside waiting,” Gorman said.

Scores of doctors and emergency service teams from all over the tri-state area showed up in Manhattan that week, but the thousands of victims, who rescuers believed trapped beneath the rubble, never emerged.

Dan Karlin, CC ’01, GSAS ’05, and a CAVA alumnus, drove into the city that day from western Massachusetts where he’d been working at a summer camp. He said his parents in Westchester, N.Y. thought he was crazy when he swung by his house to pick up equipment.

“At that point it was the momentum. It was the thing I had to do. I had to be a part of it,” Karlin said.

He stayed at Ground Zero, which rescuers were calling “the pile,” for three days straight.

Mostly, he said, he helped with logistics and stood in a line of volunteers and rescue workers who passed debris from person to person. The black soot in the streets was eight or nine inches deep, and the pile continued to burn for all three days that he was there, saturating the air in smoke.

He only treated one patient—someone who was knocked unconscious while passing a beam through the line.

“It feels unfair,” Karlin said. “Real people died very suddenly and there wasn’t much anybody could do.”

Just off the Westside Highway at Stuyvesant High School, Gorman said he felt a similar sense of helplessness. Classrooms in the school had been converted into operating rooms, and medical personnel and policemen were everywhere. Gorman said that sitting and waiting all day felt awful.

“This is why I got the training—to help in an emergency like this, and I couldn’t,” he said. “There was nothing for me to do.”

Firefighters came in with their eyes swollen shut from dust and Gorman administered eyewashes and treated a gash on one man. As frustrated as he was, he said going downtown probably helped him deal with the day psychologically.

“I honestly think all of these people were looking for some way to help, and having some ability to put yourself into the relief effort made that day much easier for those of us who were down there,” he said.

The next day in his Contemporary Civilization class, Gorman said his classmates applauded him for his courage.

“I remember feeling really embarrassed that people were interested or excited about my story. I just told everyone that all I did was eat Red Cross bologna sandwiches all afternoon,” he said.

Gorman said he and his friends felt ashamed for years.

“For a while afterwards we felt like we didn’t do enough,” he said. “But now I see there just wasn’t anything for us to do. There was nothing any of us could have done.”

As the years have passed, the EMTs say fewer and fewer people ask them about being in New York during the attacks. Karlin said he still struggles to articulate the way he feels about those events.

“Looking back at anything you did 10 years ago just feels like looking back at another person,” he said. “But those are three days I feel particularly detached from.”