A Boston EMS physician in a hard hat, mask, and heavy jacket stands in a parking lot with a row of ambulances in the background.
Susan Briggs, MD, at Ground Zero following the 9/11 terror attacks.

Two decades after her deployment to Ground Zero in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Susan Diehl, RN, vividly remembers the relatives.

“Each morning when we’d arrive at the police barricades, people would be standing there with pictures of their loved ones, asking us to look for them,” she says. “Hours later, after a hard shift when we were ready to get back on the shuttle bus to the hotel, they were still there—waiting for word.”

Diehl was one of more than a dozen Massachusetts General Hospital staff on Boston’s Disaster Medical Assistance Team who were dispatched to New York City—many to the site where terrorists had flown hijacked planes into the World Trade Center’s two 110-story towers.

“We were unsure what to expect,” says Tony Forgione, a surgical technologist whose initial job was to stock supplies for surgery and cast-making. Yet as it became clear that the majority of survivors were walking wounded who had escaped the buildings before they collapsed, the focus turned to treating exhausted firefighters and ironworkers who sifted through millions of tons of smoking rubble called “the pile.”

The team set up medical stations in tents and even in an abandoned deli, placing first-aid supplies where the sandwiches had been. Staff offered breathing treatments, IV fluids to combat dehydration, and cots to provide some rest to first responders—many who were often reluctant to leave the pile. As Brenda Smith, RN, shared in Caring Headlines in October 2001, one firefighter, before falling asleep, grabbed her hand. “He slept with my hand in his, against his chest, for about 20 minutes. When he woke up, he looked at me and said, ‘Thank you. I just needed to hold a hand.’” Ground Zero was the first real deployment for Smith, now a nurse practitioner in the Division of Gastroenterology. “It definitely shaped me,” she says.

Team Commander Susan Briggs, MD, who continues to be supervising medical officer of this team—now called the Trauma and Critical Care Team—observed that two major details set this disaster apart from the many others she has seen. “In a terrorist attack, there’s no regard for who is harmed, unlike in combat. Fortunately no children were injured,” she says. “And the scene was massive and extremely hazardous. So many responders lost their lives years later as a result.”

Briggs says she remembers the search and rescue teams coming in from across the country. One team member she spoke to had lost a sister at the site, and helping there, he told Briggs, was the best way he could honor her memory.

A towering pile of rubble and pieces of building at Ground Zero.
Part of "the pile" at Ground Zero.

While Briggs and others were downtown, Sally Morton, RN, was uptown at the Cornell Burn Center at New York Presbyterian Hospital, thrown into a new workplace among new colleagues to treat survivors who had suffered burns. Toward the end of her deployment, she and Burn Center colleagues were given a chance to visit Ground Zero. “As we were walking down a dusty road, we took a turn and all of a sudden I saw the Statue of Liberty. After seeing all that destruction, to see the Statue of Liberty was very powerful,” she says.

Back in Boston immediately after the attacks, hospitals cleared out in anticipation of receiving trauma victims from New York. N. Stuart Harris, MD, now a Mass General Emergency Department physician, was a resident working overnight in the Brigham and Women’s Hospital ED. “That night was strange in that we were aware that the world had changed, we were fully geared up to help, and no one came,” he says. 

The attacks’ toll is hard to fathom: Close to 3,000 people died in New York City, Washington, D.C. and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Yet Mass General staff have chosen to focus on the privilege of serving. “Academic medical centers have a crucial role in disaster response,” says Briggs. “It’s not only an honor but also our responsibility to share our expertise.”

Colleagues at Mass General covered shifts to allow Diehl and others to deploy, for which Diehl is grateful. “It was a true honor and privilege,” she says. Adds Forgione, “We were all there to do a job. You’re glad to do what you can.”

While some on the team have not returned to New York City in the past two decades, Morton has visited the 9/11 Memorial Museum. “I looked at it a little differently than other visitors,” she says, “because I was able to help.”