9/11/01: Worst brings out NY's best
"A man ran up to us," Stephen Craver said. "His whole face was peeling off. That's how badly burned he was."
Craver, a gray-haired paramedic from St. Vincents Hospital and Medical Center, was already at the corner of Vesey and West streets when the first wave of horrified survivors came rushing from the World Trade Center.
"The man asked me, 'Does it look bad?'" Craver said. "I didn't want to tell him. I said, 'You can walk. You can talk. You'll be OK.'"
It was that kind of day in New York.
Profound human suffering. A million little kindnesses. A near-religious insistence that, yes, somehow or another, all of us will do our best to get through this.
"I hope I was right," Craver said.
New Yorkers have always believed that ours is the greatest city anywhere. Yesterday, we proved it.
We took the toughest hit that any terrorist has ever delivered - two of them. We watched in horror as the peak of our skyline was lopped off. We faced the brunt of a lunatic enemy, an enemy too vicious even to contemplate, an enemy too cowardly even to reveal himself.
And yet we were not defeated. Not even close.
Where bitterness might have risen - or a sense of defeat - humanity did.
The city wasn't ripped apart. It came together. No riots broke out. A civic politeness spread. Without complaint or bitterness, people got through the day better than they would have anywhere. They went to bed expecting a brand-new day.
Terrorism is meant to instill public terror. Terrorism failed in New York yesterday.
Craver and his partner, Louis Garcia, piled six office workers into their ambulance for a swift ride uptown. All six of them had been in an elevator together in the World Trade Center when the first crash sent a fireball down the shaft. All six were now terribly burned.
"We had five on the bench, one on the stretcher," Garcia said, as he finally caught his breath inside the ER. "One lady was hysterical. She was screaming all the way. 'Get me to the hospital! Get me to the hospital!' They were 60, 70 floors below where the plane hit. Even there, they got those kinds of burns."
By midday, 500 people waited on West 11th Street outside St. Vincents to donate blood for the injured. Pretty soon, all except the O-negatives were being sent to other hospitals. "We are simply overwhelmed," a man said into a bullhorn.
Dozens of doctors, nurses and paramedics waited for more ambulances to arrive. But in the first few hours at least, they came in a trickle, far fewer than the trauma center was prepared to handle. "This may not be a good sign," warned Dr. Andrew Feldman, one of the hospital's top orthopedic surgeons. "So many people are still trapped in the building - or dead."
It was right then that a Port Authority police officer bounded up the steps at the ER loading dock. He had a clipboard in his hand and a morbid look on this face. "Who can help me?" he asked the first hospital official he saw.
"We had 15 guys go into the building who are now unaccounted for," he told Jasmin Collazo, a hospital public-affairs official. "I need to figure out if any of our people are here. Who can help me?"
Collazo took the cop by the arm and walked him inside.
It was the little moments like that, all over town, that together revealed the kind of place New York is.
One building owner on Little West 12th Street hung a hand-lettered sign out front, inviting those walking by to use the bathroom. When was the last time that happened in New York?
At Duane and Centre streets, on the edge of Foley Square, Arthur Noscarelli, without being asked, directed a wave of people who were coming out of the subway - after being stuck below ground for as much as two hours.
"Come on, sweetheart, this way," he called out to an older lady in high heels. "I'll carry you if you need me to."
"I'm retired 13 years," he said when I mistakenly called him "officer."
"See this?" he asked.
Noscarelli pulled up the right sleeve of his black T-shirt to reveal a faded tattoo.
"We're all Americans today," he said. "We're all New Yorkers, if you know what I mean."