Face-to-face with disaster
An Irish paramedic dodges death at Ground Zero
The following story is one in a series of profiles based on interviews from "Tower Stories," an independent project showcasing the firsthand accounts of those directly and indirectly affected by the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- A native of Belfast, Ireland, Roger Smyth moved to the United States to become a paramedic, reveling in the job because it was "never predictable." That sentiment never rang truer than on September 11.
His morning began about 10 minutes before 9 a.m. with a phone call from his former girlfriend. "The Trade Tower has been hit by a plane," she told him.
After watching the fire from the roof of his Brooklyn apartment building, Smyth answered a call for help aired on a local TV station, donned his uniform and on his day off headed to work -- NYU Downtown Hospital -- all within 10 minutes after he woke up.
He drove over the Brooklyn Bridge and into a scene, he surmised, out of the Vietnam War -- "all these refugees spilling over the bridge, the smoke billowing out behind them."
Then came the buzzing of a low airplane and another explosion -- United Airlines Flight 175's impact into the South Tower.
Smyth picked up an ambulance at the hospital, situated three blocks from the World Trade Center, and parked it at the building's base.
Firefighters raise an American flag on a heap of rubble September 11, a few yards away from Smyth.
"Pandemonium," said Smyth, 35, recalling the scene. "Things [were] strewn everywhere -- everything from bits of bodies to bodies to furniture, luggage, shoes, handbags, mementos, personal items. ...
"Bodies falling out of the sky, people scattering in every direction, emergency workers trying to get people out."
His first patient, a woman in her 20s, had third degree burns from "head to toe."
Smyth and his partner stabilized her and took her to the Weill Cornell Burn Center. On their way back to the Trade Center, the "South Tower crumbled right in front of us," Smyth recalled.
Despite near-nothing visibility, a rash of fires and floating "nuclear snow," Smyth found his way to Ground Zero.
He was helping set up a triage -- replacing a triage crushed in the south tower's fall -- when fresh shouts rang out: "It's gonna collapse, it's gonna collapse."
A cloud of smoke engulfed Smyth and everything else as he ran under an overhang hoping to avoid the tons of concrete, steel and glass from the crumbling north tower.
"As soon as it settled, you could hear voices," he recalled. "Screaming. Shouting. People not knowing what direction was what because it was so dense, the smoke. ... I saw people getting up and going toward the rubble, getting whoever they could."
Despite stiff odds and perilous conditions, rescue workers and firemen fought off tears and thick, debris-laden air sifting through the smoldering rubble.
Smyth recalled one firefighter, in his mid-40s, who had abnormally low blood pressure and severe burns on his neck, head and back. The man wrestled with Smyth, telling him he had to "get back in" and look for his fellow battalion members in the Pile.
"I told him not to go, but what can you do?" said Smyth. "If I had come out, with maybe 14 of my buddies still in there? There was camaraderie and a selflessness that I had never experienced before."
A few yards from his ambulance, three firefighters scaled the rubble, unveiled a U.S. flag and hoisted it on a post they had found.
"I'm not into any form of patriotism," says Smyth, an Irish national. "But I was very moved by what was going on. This symbol of defiance in the midst of all the rubble -- it was very reminiscent of Iwo Jima. ... They were raising this flag in this very eerie silence and they raised it up."
Smyth returned home around 1 a.m., had a few beers with friends, then finally let go as he watched a recap of the day's events on the news.
"When I actually came home and sat down, away from the work area, you realized what had actually happened," he recalled. "And then the emotion set in."
For the next few days, Smyth returned to Ground Zero between his regular shifts, treating firefighters and rescue workers for inhalation, irritated eyes and heat emergencies.
But there were no major traumas because there were no survivors -- either people had escaped or they had been crushed or scorched to death by the tons of flaming, falling debris.
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