My 9/11: An Ophthalmologist at Ground Zero – ‘In a Dark Time, the Eye Begins to See’

Having witnessed the Twin Towers’ collapse and later that day, the unfortunate lack of injured being brought to the New York-Presbyterian Hospital ER, I was determined to do whatever I could to relieve the suffering of survivors and responders on-site, at Ground Zero.

I was given a slit-lamp microscope, surgical instruments and emergency supplies by the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, which I dissembled and transported to lower Manhattan.  After being escorted through multiple NYPD, State Police and Army checkpoints, the NYPD provided me with a room at One Police Plaza, adjacent to the old NYC Command and Control Center, to treat hundreds of eye injuries in my improvised eye ER. Looking out of the window revealed devastated buildings, and streets that resembled a grey snowstorm.

As soon as the word got out that there was an ophthalmologist in the building, a long line of the injured formed outside the door. There were pulverized concrete and sheet rock fragments, wisps of fiberglass, asbestos dust and miniscule splinters of glass in hundreds of people’s eyes, microscopic removal of which, was challenging, but imperative.

During the second week, an officer from the police chief’s office personally escorted me around Ground Zero. After suiting-up with a hard hat, respirator mask, boots and rain poncho, the devastation appeared far more massive up close. The dedicated bucket brigades on “the pile” looked like ants on an anthill, with acrid smoke rising from the thousand-degree fires still burning underneath.

Falling building fragments had crushed the Winter Garden.  A solitary steel girder was impaled into the side of a neighboring building, hundreds of feet above the ground. Huge machines cut though twisted steel, like scissors through paper. Cranes and bulldozers picked away at debris everywhere. The rain created ankle-deep grey mud from the residual concrete dust in the streets.

I visited one of several makeshift morgues to learn about the identification of victims’ fragmented remains. We entered a medical tent on the corner of Church and Vesey streets, manned by paramedics from Boston, where we all listened together, in silence, to the Presidential Address to Congress over the radio. It was all the more moving, standing on that site, at that very moment.

I recall leaning over a floodlit, debris-gouged precipice, watching rescue dogs being sent through serendipitous, dark openings the rubble, to search for survivors.  I was asked to remain there, in case a physician was needed.  Electrifying anticipation was unfortunately followed by disappointment, as there were so very few survivors to be discovered, thus compounding the tragedy.

It was inspiring to watch New Yorkers banding together to selflessly help one another in our mutual time of need.

Dr. Barry Belgorod is the recipient of the Oliver Memorial Prize in Ophthalmology from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.  He is the father of two sons, and is an eye surgeon on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

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