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Ten years later

Thousands of nurses responded to help after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. Four of them — a hospice nurse, an occupational health nurse, a med/surg nurse and a pediatric nurse practitioner — found a way to make a difference. They volunteered at Ground Zero, triaged and provided first aid to employees, bystanders and rescue workers and arrived to work even when they were not scheduled.

Their stories — full of dedication, survival, bewilderment and generosity — reveal the memories that still stand out in their mind 10 years later. While remembering the fallen and those who responded on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, read how these first responders helped on a day that will live in infamy.

Royanna Commisso, RN, Merrill Lynch medical services manager

Royanna Commisso, RN

Commisso, now retired, was at Merrill Lynch, across the street from the Twin Towers on 9/11. She was in her office before the attacks.

After the first plane crashed, Commisso and another nurse began to walk across the street to the World Trade Center to tell EMS they could send people over to them. They were actually in the process of lifting their legs over a cement divider when the second plane hit.

“Luckily, we were under a bridge. Nurses being nurses, I mean we grabbed on to each other,” Commisso said. “Neither one of us to this day — neither of us remembers the exact sound, but we know it was very loud.”

Commisso and her team were moved to another area to give medical care. They sent the last two ambulances of people to the hospital just seconds before the first tower collapsed.

“When the building came down, we thought it was another explosion or something,” Commisso said. “We started running into the winter garden; the firemen came and told us to get out and to run to the river. So that is what we did.”

She later heard those ambulances made it to the hospital safely.

Eileen Dunn, RN, St. Vincent’s Hospital med/surg nurse

Eileen Dunn, RN

Dunn had just finished her shift at St. Vincent’s at about 1:30 in the morning on Sept. 12, 2001, when she could feel all her emotions hitting her.

“As I was leaving the hospital — when I walked out — there were police guard rails up, and as far as the eyes could see to the right of me were people lined up to donate blood. I get choked up when I talk about it,” Dunn said in a shaky voice. “People were so compassionate, so ready to give and so ready to take care of other people. It was unbelievable.”

Eileen Dunn, RN, talks with a reporter.

Dunn also reflected on a firefighter she treated who refused to take off his gear and sat with his walkie-talkie next to him.

“He came in because he was having chest pain. He didn’t have a cardiac problem. It was probably from smoke in his lungs. I gave him some pain medication, and I came back in 15 minutes to see how he was doing — he was gone,” Dunn said. “He went off back down, I’m sure, to the site.”

Dunn worked at St. Vincent’s for 25 years until it closed in April 2010. She is working with a coalition to get a hospital back where it was located.

Maria Gatto, MA, APRN, APCHN, NP, HNP, graduate NYU Nurse Practitioner program

Gatto grabbed a pair of garden gloves, shin pads and a paper waste basket. She climbed the huge mounds in the area where New York’s Twin Towers stood just hours before — and dug.

Nursing school may not have prepared her for this, but Gatto didn’t mind at all; she just wanted to pitch in where she was needed the most. “I couldn’t imagine it,” Gatto recalled. “What you did is just dig. It was a very solemn event; nobody said a word. You have nothing except the barest of what you have, and you just do it.”

Gatto, now director of palliative care for Trinity Health in Novi, Mich., was a graduate student in the New York University Nurse Practitioner program and a part-time home hospice nurse at Valley Home Care in Paramus, N.J., during 9/11.

“It’s really amazing. I remember one of the first images was when I was walking out to actually see the site — those huge mangled, rubbled areas,” Gatto said. “The image of that huge tower and the largest gravesite in history. I sank to my knees, and I couldn’t believe it. That was the first shocking reality.”

Gatto also witnessed one of the most famous images from 9/11, a now iconic, award-winning photo taken by Thomas E. Franklin. She watched the three firemen putting up the American flag amidst the rubble of the Twin Towers.

“I just went to my knees and put my head down. Oh my God; this moment is a moment in epiphany that won’t be forgotten,” said Gatto, who compared the sight to Iwo Jima back in World War II. “I see these firemen who are struggling and putting up that flag over all the death and devastation to show there is hope and democracy still in this world. The chills that went through me were almost like a time warp.”

Marianne Roncoli, RN, MA, PhD, Bellevue Hospital pediatric nurse practitioner

Marianne Roncoli, RN

Roncoli headed to Bellevue Hospital, located near where 9/11 occurred, to see if she could help. Although the Bellevue pediatric staff was incredibly prepared, they saw only one baby.

“The mother was full of white soot and grey ash. Everyone descended on her, but all she wanted was a diaper and bottle for the baby,” Roncoli said. “The baby was fine.”
A few days later, Roncoli, who also was a clinical associate professor at NYU, joined other healthcare professionals to try to help at Ground Zero.

“There were huge spotlights on it. Think about what you would expect if you were doing construction on your house and had to leave stuff on the sidewalk to be picked up. Imagine it was 60 stories high and three blocks long,” Roncoli explained. “The mounds and mounds of soft debris, this image still sticks in my head.”

So does the smell — “sweet, dirty and musty” — of Ground Zero. “It was a mixture of organic material and construction material,” Roncoli said. “The smell lasted for days.”
She remembered someone being treated for a small cut and how much effort and attention was given — even to the most minor injury. “You would have thought they were doing open-heart surgery — the drapery and handling of instruments,” Roncoli said.

Some of the other images Roncoli recalled were seeing a firefighter sitting and blankly staring into space and the thousands of signs posted with missing loved ones’ photos.
She can’t forget the sound of the sirens from ambulances and police cars, which seemed like they never stopped for days.

Now, 10 years later, Roncoli, associate professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., still stops every time she hears a siren. “If it lasts more than 1 minute,” Roncoli said, “then I know it’s something terrible.”

Roncoli helped request new underwear from a local store to give to the firefighters. She couldn’t believe it when they donated about $500 worth. “They just cleared their shelves,” Roncoli said, amazed. “They didn’t even know who we were.”

By | 2020-04-15T13:58:11-04:00 September 12th, 2011|Categories: New York/New Jersey Metro, Regional|0 Comments

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