Through the Valley of Death

May 9, 2009

28 min read


The personal miracle of a rescue worker buried beneath the rubble of the Twin Towers.

An excerpt from the new book "Even in the Darkest Moments" by Zeev Breier.

The following is a meager attempt to record the awesome occurrences that both I and my colleagues in Hatzalah -- the emergency Jewish volunteer ambulance service for all members of the New York community and throughout the world -- had experienced during our rescue efforts at the World Trade Center attack of September 11th. Of course no words can truly capture the thoughts, feelings, emotions in the experience and survival of that unforgettable day. Needless to say, attempting to relive the events of September 11th is no easy experience from an emotional perspective. However, on a spiritual level, it is both an obligation and merit to record our individual recollections and publicly acknowledge our Hakoras Hatov (recognition of goodliness) to God for the miraculous rescue of all Hatzalah members and allowing us all the privilege to survive to "tell the story."

8:48 AM on September 11, 2001 (23 Elul 5761)

A member of Hatzalah was driving on the West Side highway and called in on his two-way Hatzalah radio that things were falling out of the World Trade Center from an explosion on the top floors. At the time, I was sitting next to the base station in the Hatzalah office in Brooklyn. Remembering the previous World Trade Center bombing eight years earlier, and recalling the danger that my dear friend Shimmy Beigeleisen, of blessed memory, was in during that first bombing, and recalling the tale of his narrow escape from the smoke and fire, I realized the extent of the potential catastrophe at hand, and immediately called Heshy Jacob (President of Hatzalah) and David Shipper, both Manhattan Hatzalah coordinators, to head over to the World Trade Center for scene coordination and to report to us the resources needed. They were already en route before I was able to reach them.

Following confirmation that an airplane hit the World Trade Center and also that 911 was down and people couldn't reach the 911 operators, we realized the extreme severity of the matter and the Hatzalah dispatcher was instructed to send a dozen ambulances to the scene; one from each of the neighborhood branches of Hatzalah. One of Hatzalah's closest ambulances to the scene, stationed on Wall Street, was actually the very first ambulance to arrive at the World Trade Center disaster. Besides many ambulances, our dispatcher also sent over numerous paramedics and doctors, as well as Hatzalah's emergency mobile command center.

From the Hatzalah Central office at East 9th Street and Avenue M in Brooklyn, I immediately jumped into the car, lights and sirens blaring, and headed towards the city, weaving in and out of heavy rush hour traffic. I had my two-way radio in one hand, my cell phone in the other, and my knees were keeping the steering wheel straight, a trick emergency management needs to know when responding to an MCI (multiple casualty incident). It was a crystal clear day and as I got to the Gowanus Expressway, right before the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the traffic came to a complete halt. People were getting out of their cars and watching in disbelief the North Tower go up in the flames before their very eyes. It was a horrific sight, and even more strange and unbelievable was watching the skyline covered with tens of thousands of pieces of paper pouring out the upper offices of the World Trade Center and spreading out like snow across the sky.

We watched in horror as the second Boeing 767 crashed into the South Tower, bursting into a huge ball of flame. I could not believe what I was seeing.

I got into the special HOV lane (a special lane opened during rush hours for busses, emergency vehicles and vehicles with three or more occupants) which leads directly into the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, and became part of a long convoy of police cars and emergency vehicles, all rushing to get to the World Trade Center as quickly as possible. The Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority Police designated a special access lane just for emergency vehicles, and while we were impatiently waiting for it to open, all of a sudden, out of the clear blue sky, we watched in horror as the second Boeing 767 crashed into the South Tower, and the second building burst into a huge ball of flame and heavy clouds of smoke. Although I saw it with my very eyes, I could not believe what I was seeing. It made absolutely no sense. I was in a total state of confusion and denial for about one minute. At this point in time, I had no idea that the first plane that hit the tower was anything more than a fluke accident. I had assumed that it was a small single engine plane that flew into the World Trade Center.

When I saw the second tower burst into flames after the crash, I couldn't hold myself back from crying. I was alone in the car and I couldn't come to grips with the horrible realization that numerous people would die from this terrible catastrophe. I asked the Almighty to have mercy. Before I had a chance to pull myself together and collect my thoughts, the special tunnel lane suddenly opened up for police and emergency vehicles and within two minutes we were in Manhattan and only two blocks away from the burning Twin Towers. I quickly parked my car (which was later bombarded and destroyed by the falling debris) and ran up West Street towards the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Upon arrival at the scene, we met hundreds of people pouring out of the Twin Towers. They were running for their dear lives. They were screaming. They were crying. They had terror and fear in their faces. There were little fires erupting all over the place.

Between the onset of the attack at 8:48 AM and the South Tower building collapse at 9:59 AM, Hatzalah had transported close to one hundred forty patients. Their conditions ranged from patients in cardiac arrest, to patients with all degrees of burns, fractures, internal bleeding and inhalation burns. Our ambulances were loaded up with four to six patients per vehicle. Besides the transports, numerous walking wounded were treated, supported and directed away from the area by Hatzalah personnel.

As we set up a staging area for our ambulances and emergency vehicles at the corner of South End Avenue and Liberty Street, which was about two hundred feet from the South Tower, I met Chief Robert A. McCracken, who is the highest ranking EMS Chief of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), and with whom we have worked together for many years on many occasions. The Chief advised us that both he and the Deputy Chief Ulysses Grant would work jointly with Hatzalah's resources to set up triage and treatment areas for patients coming out of the South Tower. Almost all of FDNY's ambulances were located at the North Tower, and numerous fire apparatus blocking West Street did not allow them passage across to the South Tower. As such, Hatzalah was the primary agency covering the south and west side World Trade Center complex. Hatzalah's mobile emergency command center arrived on the scene and was used to set up incident command for Hatzalah, Police and FDNY chiefs. We were anticipating thousands of casualties.

Scene safety for the emergency medical personnel and doctors was our first responsibility. Chief Robert A. McCracken suggested that we redirect most of the Hatzalah ambulances from the corner of Liberty Street that faces the South Tower to a safer spot on South End Avenue. He had suspected that the top of the North Tower might topple over, so we moved across Liberty and stationed the Hatzalah ambulances facing south on South End Avenue between a row of buildings. Who could have dreamt that the Twin Towers would collapse entirely, and who could have figured that the South Tower, which was closer to us and was hit last, would be the first to collapse?

We then began a head count of all Hatzalah personnel at the scene, listing all the EMT's, paramedics and doctors, and their locations. At the same time, we selected an area on South End Avenue and designated it as a triage and treatment station. In concern for personnel safety, members were instructed to wear Hatzalah vests and helmets. Debris had been falling from the building, and the scene was not safe. However, there were not enough helmets to go around for all Hatzalah members. EMS personnel were instructed not to enter the Twin Towers, since they were not protected or outfitted with SCBA's (self-contained breathing apparatus) and personal protective clothing for hazardous environments.

While we were setting up the triage area, a police officer whispered to me that he just got a report that the Pentagon was hit, and another incident was being reported in Chicago, as well. This was actually the first time that I realized that this was no coincidental accident and that America was indeed under attack. The feeling at the moment was one of total disbelief and horror. We did not have the opportunity to listen to the radio reports, as we were totally preoccupied and overwhelmed with our massive rescue efforts.

We then looked up and noticed that the numerous dots falling out of the top of the World Trade Center one after another were actually people jumping out of the buildings. I cannot describe in words our shock and disbelief. Some were actually holding hands together while falling to their deaths. Some sailed right over us on Liberty Street and crashed across the road in a parking lot. We couldn't bear looking at people jumping to their death and were forced to turn away in tears and disbelief. Reality hit us hard that this was a catastrophe of enormous magnitude and we guessed that there would inevitably be thousands of casualties and deaths. With very heavy and sad hearts, we set up our stretchers alongside the building, with IV poles, defibrillators, and oxygen tanks, but we all felt totally helpless and the situation hopeless.

After completing our head count at our primary incident command site, and setting the triage and treatment areas in place, I then proceeded down to the South Tower to account for additional Hatzalah members and ambulances stationed at other locations. I was trying to meet up with the president of the organization, Heshy Jacob, and David Shipper, who is a Manhattan coordinator of Hatzalah, so that we could discuss strategy in deploying our many resources where they were needed most. The Lower East Side ambulance, which was commanded by Heshy Jacob, was positioned under the pedestrian bridge on the southbound lane of West Street, just across from the South Tower. The overpass offered some protection from falling debris and falling victims that continued streaming down one after another, exploding upon impact with the ground. One firefighter described it as "falling teardrops." The scene was like a war zone, with debris, glass and bodies all over the place.

All of a sudden we heard the loudest and most powerful sound in our lives. It was clearly the sound of death.

At the corner of West Street and Liberty, I met one of the Queens coordinators, and as he was showing me where the balance of the Hatzalah personnel were, all of a sudden we heard the loudest and most powerful sound in our lives. At first, I thought it was another plane coming at us. There was a tremendous long-lasting roar that continued to get louder and louder. It sounded like a volcanic eruption. The crashing of the South Tower felt like an avalanche coming down, with the ground shaking like an earthquake and the one hundred and ten floors of debris caving in. It was a rolling noise that was getting louder and louder. It was clearly the sound of death. That deafening and horrifying sound is still ringing in my head three times a day, during the blessing of gratitude in Shemoneh Esrei (the nineteen blessings recited three times a day by Jews), and is a memory that I am sure we all will not and cannot ever forget.

Without losing even a fraction of a second to look up, we ran for our dear lives, most running for cover inside the adjoining buildings and garages, others jumping into ambulances and under fire trucks. Everyone scattered in different directions. I had my helmet on my head and being a very fast runner, I decided to run a block and a half to our original staging area at South End Street and Liberty in order to meet up with the bulk of our units and then head for the river. While I was running for my life, heavy shrapnel, glass and debris were bombarding me. I remember praying that I did not make a fatal mistake by not taking immediate cover at the closest building like everyone else. But I just wanted to get back to the group for whom I was responsible.

We later discovered that many firefighters and rescuers were killed by heavy metal "I beams" and falling debris and glass in the very same area that we were standing. The Hatzalah coordinator that I was talking to before the crash did not have a helmet and he ended up with sixty stitches in his head and a bunch of broken bones. Another firefighter, who was next to one of our members, was sliced in half by a plate of glass, and yet another firefighter was killed in the driver's seat of his fire truck by a falling brick. Many other firefighters and rescue workers died from suffocation, being buried under the heavy ash and debris.

After running for my life and reaching Hatzalah's command post at the corner of South End Street, I found the place totally deserted and I could barely see with all the smoke and debris pouring down on my helmet. There were steel pillars falling all around me and any one of them could have easily flattened me to pieces. Being all by myself with the world coming down on my head, I panicked and started screaming at the top of my lungs to see if anyone was alive. The place was totally deserted. I was standing in a few feet of pulverized dust, rocks, and debris. A Hatzalah member yelled back for me to quickly take cover in the ambulance. I didn't think that it was smart to take shelter in an ambulance while the World Trade Center was coming down, but with little time to think, I listened to my friend, and jumped into the ambulance. In retrospect, I am certain that I would not have survived the continued debris bombardment had I remained outside much longer.

As I entered the ambulance, I stood up in the rear of the ambulance, with my head near the roof. As I heard and felt the severe pounding on the roof of the ambulance, I quickly dropped to the floor, taking cover between the bench and the stretcher. I knew that it was really futile to take cover from a building about to crush us alive, and I realized that I probably made a fatal error that would cost me my life.

In those few seconds, while waiting for the building to crush us to pieces, I knew that my life would be over in a matter of moments.

In those few seconds, while waiting for the building to crush us to pieces, I knew that my life would be over in a matter of moments. I remained calm and did not panic. I quickly recited the Shema in tears, and my friend in the ambulance, Yidel Guttman, was crying to God to have mercy. I was at peace with myself and ready to meet my Master in Heaven, but saddened that I wasn't granted the years to accomplish what I had strived for in learning and service to God. Time was going so fast. But something strange happened. I didn't die. I was still alive.

Two seconds later, I felt my feet, which were dangling out of the side door of the ambulance, were being buried by rocks, concrete, debris and ash. What a mess I was in now! I was sure that I was going to be buried alive from the debris below and crushed by the collapsing building above. I was almost about to laugh at the total absurdity of the hopeless situation. It was just not to be believed. I could not even imagine surviving more than a few more seconds of this horror.

But my struggle to survive did not end there. Things got even worse. As the debris and ash began piling up at my feet, my lungs suddenly filled with asbestos and ground glass. (My wife told me that more than a day later, I was still coughing up debris). No one should ever know what it is like to suffocate. I couldn't breathe at all. It was absolutely the most horrifying experience in my life. Being deprived of oxygen, my head started getting weaker and I felt that I was about to die. I couldn't think. I began to panic. I was gasping for a last breath. But with each breath, more debris entered my lungs, making it even harder to breathe. Suddenly, I realized that my nose was pressing against an oxygen tank on the floor. I immediately unscrewed the oxygen tank and my friend handed me an oxygen mask and I succeeded in getting some oxygen to my clogged lungs. Baruch Hashem (thank God)! I got some oxygen back to my brain, and was able to regain some composure. I could not believe that I was still alive.

Now that I was able to breathe a little, (coughing heavily every few seconds, with lungs full of debris) I returned my focus to continue my final preparations before being crushed and buried, and before running out of oxygen (the tank has a maximum of fifteen minutes of oxygen). In what I figured was my very last minute of life, I decided to repeat the recital of Shema with the appropriate intention and prepare for my departure from this world. As I began to get ready for what I presumed to be the final Shema in my life, my mind suddenly turned to my most precious possession in my life, my devoted wife, Miriam, and eight adorable children (Chanala, Esti, Rivki, Devora, Dovid Chai, Boruch, Chaim Tzvi and Leah). My mind was imagining how devastated the kids would be about losing their father. I pictured the heart-rending picture of those innocent little boys saying Kaddish (mourner's prayer) in the synagogue for me and my heart literally went out for them. I then thought about my most wonderful and precious partner in life, who could never manage without me, or I without her. How in the world would she be able to go on after I die? I knew that she and my whole family depend on me. How could I let them down? At that moment, I got myself so worked up in emotions, that my adrenaline started pumping rapidly. I decided to forego on the opportunity to say the final Shema before my departure from this world, which would have probably been the case had I remained in the ambulance, and instead I made my decision to make an attempt to escape and try to somehow save my life.

Even though I didn't actually believe for a second that I had a chance in the world to make it out alive, for my family's sake, I couldn't just sit still. I had to try to do something to fulfill the Torah precept: "V'chai bahem" -- "and you shall live by them [the mitzvot of the Torah]." I pushed away the debris from my feet, and managed to slide myself out of the side door of the ambulance. It was totally pitch black outside, where not too long before it was bright daylight. I was absolutely convinced that we were caved in and that no one in the world (if anyone out there was left alive) would ever find us before we die from lack of oxygen. I pictured the entire World Trade Center caved in on top of us. It is difficult to describe this in writing, but while I am ordinarily known to be a ridiculously optimistic person, I didn't have the shadow of a doubt that my attempt to escape this was an act of futility and that we would never survive.

It seemed like the world was over. The silence was deafening.

At this point there was no more roaring thunderous sound and there was no more pelting by debris. It seemed like the world was over. From the huge cave-in sound of the avalanche and the pounding on the roof of the ambulance, the world suddenly came to a total standstill. The silence was deafening. It was a most eerie feeling. We were later told that the ash and debris was so thick that the sound waves were unable to pass through.

After managing to push aside the debris blocking the side door and sliding out of the ambulance, I felt solid ground underneath me, and I stood up on my feet. I was never happier to feel ground under my feet.

I called out to my friend, Yidel Gutman, in the ambulance to put on oxygen and crawl out of the ambulance and follow behind me. I then started walking like a blind man with my hands out in front of me. I was clutching the oxygen tank, which was my lifeline in one hand, and the other hand outstretched so that I wouldn't bump into anything. The darkness was so thick and black that it could actually be felt. (It reminded me of the plague of darkness in Egypt that one could actually feel.) I couldn't see even an inch ahead of me.

After blindly walking step by step, carefully maneuvering the paper debris and metal pillars strewn all over the place, my outstretched hand finally touched a solid wall. It was the outside wall of a building. I remember saying to myself, Baruch Hashem something is still standing. My instincts told me to turn to the left. I followed southward along the wall until I passed a glass door of a store (I think). Inside there was a light on and I saw between ten to twenty frightened faces that seemed to be trapped inside the building. I used my oxygen tank to smash through the door. I instructed the people, who were grateful to be rescued, to follow me. Eventually we made some more turns and ended up at another corner further south, where we spotted light on the horizon to the west. How can I possibly describe the feeling of relief that we were no longer trapped and caved in under a building? With the clear benevolence of the Master of the World, our lives were spared. We survived. I couldn't believe it. "Hodu laShem ki tov" -- "Give thanks to Hashem, for He is good..."

We finally ended up at the Robert Wagner Park, near Battery Park at the docks. More than a thousand people who had escaped the towers and adjacent buildings ended up at this same location. Many of the people (including myself) were covered head to toe with gray debris which looked like volcanic ash and most had shirts, kerchiefs, etc. over their faces to try to filter the air. There were many people injured and all were frightened and in shock. The air was thick and dirty and hard to breathe. People were scrambling for water to wash out their eyes that were burning from smoke and pieces of crushed glass dust. I could barely see, with my swollen eyes scratched by tiny pulverized glass. It was a hard feeling seeing our fellow rescue workers from the police and fire departments, keeling over in an attempt to catch their breath, turning from rescuer into victim. No one was invulnerable.

Hatzalah members were the only emergency care providers at this location and they tended to the numerous sick and injured. I cannot describe how great a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's Name) it was. Police Chief Fox, of Brooklyn South, stated recently in a speech that after many debriefing sessions with officers who survived the World Trade Center, he heard police officer after police officer recall that Hatzalah was right there to help with the throngs of hysterical people and the injured.

The Hatzalah dispatcher, after being advised on the two-way radio that numerous Hatzalah were trapped and caught under the debris, began a member-by-member search over the two-way radio. I had lost my two-way radio while running for my life during the collapse, and didn't hear the dispatcher looking for the members unaccounted for. But when listening to the dispatch tape weeks later, I realized then how stressful that "long hour" must have felt to the 850 Hatzalah members and their wives, who were listening at the edge of their seats until each and every one of our members was located, accounted for and confirmed alive. (At some point during the evacuation, I succeeded in reaching my wife, and not being able to speak for more than a few seconds between coughs, I blurted out the following words: "I was trapped. I got out alive. Do teshuvah. Moshiach is coming.")

Eventually, all Hatzalah members had survived and were accounted for. When considering our location near the South Tower at the time of the collapse, with some of us actually on West Street right in front of the building, we all knew that the Hand of God had picked us out from the fiery furnace and miraculously saved all of our lives.

When I subsequently met Chief Robert McCracken of FDNY/NYC EMS at the harbor, we immediately hugged each other. After hearing that all of the Hatzalah members survived, Chief McCracken declared, "It is obvious that your God has miraculous saved all of you!" What a Kiddush Hashem to hear such a declaration. I told him that one day we will make a thanksgiving dinner and that I would invite him to repeat that declaration and say "L'chaim" ("to life") over some whiskey.

We then looked at the crowds of hysterical people and realized that they must all be evacuated off Manhattan Island before the second tower collapses. The most ironic thing that I recall, was viewing the entire scenario of a thousand people all covered with debris, and the Holocaust museum in the background, and behind it, a black cloud of smoke and fire from the rubble of the Twin Towers. It was a picture I will never forget.

As there was only a handful of police officers and firefighters and we had close to thirty Hatzalah members in uniform near the shore, Hatzalah was assigned to task to coordinate the evacuation of these throngs of people onto tugboats and ferries and private sea vessels across to Jersey City. Again, this was a tremendous opportunity forKiddush Hashem, for all these people realized that we were staying behind and risking ourselves just in order to save their lives. One police officer jumped onto a speedboat and raced off to call in ships and ferries that were watching the horrific events across the water at the New Jersey side. He ordered them to come over to the Manhattan docks and help transport the thousand stranded people to the safer shores of New Jersey.

When the boats started to arrive, the Hatzalah members helped lift these people over the barriers and load them onto the boats. We had to set up a selection process, and we first evacuated the injured, including a few of our own wounded Hatzalah members. After that, we set up two parallel lines of Hatzalah members and first selected from the hysterical crowds, the elderly, the children and the weak.

While we were in the process of evacuating all these people, we suddenly heard the terrible rumbling noise of the second tower toppling down. Those of us who were still left on the docks, hit the ground for cover, praying that the rubble and falling debris would not force us overboard into the water, or bury us alive where we were. With God's mercy, the mushroom cloud of ash, dust and rubble that was rapidly approaching us, stopped a few hundred feet before the water, and did not force us overboard.

When we finally evacuated all the people onto the boats, the Hatzalah members were the last ones to jump aboard as well, in order to tend to the weak and injured in makeshift hospitals set up at the Jersey shore. I felt that I had a responsibility to our fellow Hatzalah members to make sure that no one was left behind. I asked one fellow member, Moishe David, to stay with me and we ignored the calls of our fellow members to jump aboard the ships heading to New Jersey. We slowly and carefully walked back to the location of our command center at what would later be coined "Ground Zero." The air quality was terrible and we were wearing helmets and facemasks.

Ground Zero was just that. Zero. No life, no sound. No people. No rescuers. No nothing. The destruction was absolutely incomprehensible.

The place looked like how you would picture the world after a nuclear attack. Ground Zero was just that. Zero. No life, no sound. No people. No cameras. No rescuers. No nothing. Just a pile of rubble and hundreds of destroyed and mangle fire trucks, burned police cars and destroyed ambulances. The destruction was absolutely incomprehensible. It was a real war zone. There were small fires burning all over the place. There were huge pillars of smoke coming out of what was once the Twin Towers that continued for days. Huge steel beams and enormous amounts of debris were sprawled all over the place. There were numerous body parts all over the street. When looking at the sheer size of the mangled metal pillars and frames, some of them ten to fifteen feet long weighing tons, surrounding our ambulances, we realized that there could never be a logical explanation for our survival. Our survival was a true open miracle.

We sat down near our destroyed ambulances and cried. We cried when looking at the place where the Twin Towers used to be, now turned into a smoking and burning heap of rubble with what we figured must contain tens of thousands of victims. We also cried that we were worthy for God to have performed such a great miracle on our behalf, in order to spare our lives. I would never have believed that I would make it out alive. Multiply that by each of the one hundred Hatzalah members who were trapped, each of whom could tell his own individual miraculous story of his escape. For the next few days, I just could not stop thinking how amazing, absurd and unbelievable that I was still alive. It made absolutely no sense. The truth is that to this day, I still can't believe it.

The knowledge and feeling of God's open presence throughout His miraculous rescue intervention, was indeed our only source of comfort during this catastrophe of infinite magnitude. It is an unbelievable feeling of relief knowing that you are in God's Hands. In a flash, it became so clear that God is running the show. There can be no greater comfort than knowing that God is with you (even in a tragic situation).

When people ask me if I have fears and nightmares from the World Trade Center experience, I answer that while I think and talk about it all the time, it is with absolutely no fear or trepidation. Quite to the contrary, we are most relieved to recognize the Divine Hand in every aspect of our lives. I am now the calmest person in the world.

The Almighty has sent the world a "wake up call" the likes of which we have never experienced before. The time has come for each and every one of us to reevaluate our purpose in life and see to it that we don't get caught up in trivial pursuits. May we all enjoy His beautiful world, may we all fulfill our purpose to be a light amongst all nations, and may we all be worthy to see the coming of the Redemption speedily in our days.

"Even in the Darkest Moments" is a new book comprised of authentic stories of personal miracles from those who survived the Twin Towers tragedy. All proceeds go to Hatzalah's life-saving work.

To order a copy, please call: In Israel: 02-624-5123. In North America, email

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