By Captain Tracee Treadwell
Ten years ago, the September 11th tragedies devastated our country and forever changed our lives. On this anniversary, we remember those we lost, as well as those who worked tirelessly and courageously during the response efforts. I had the honor of working with these heroic individuals near Ground Zero. Although a decade has passed, the memories I have of those events are as vivid as if they took place yesterday.
One of the darkest days in our country’s history began for me with a clear, sunny day in Atlanta. I arrived at work in the morning, at the Epidemiology Surveillance and Response Branch in the National Center for Infectious Diseases. Earlier in my career, I worked on bioterrorism preparedness projects at CDC. I also served as a team leader for surveillance and response activities at high-profile events such as the World Trade Organization Ministerial in 1999, where we looked for unusual disease clusters or symptoms being reported within the population. These experiences would prove to be invaluable on September 11, 2001.
I was in my office when the planes struck the towers around 9:00AM. I heard shouts and loud conversation in the hall outside. The news stations were already broadcasting reports of an incident at the World Trade Center, only minutes after the first plane crashed into the North Tower and the second collided with the South Tower. In shock, horror, and silence, we witnessed the Twin Towers burning, clouds of gray and white smoke billowing from the top. We were further horrified as we watched the scenes from the Pentagon about half an hour later.
Flight to NYC
Our initial thoughts were, “How can we help?” CDC began developing a response quickly and I was assigned to lead a team to assist with surveillance and response activities in cooperation with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH).
Within a few hours of the attack, I was ready to be sent to New York along with a small group of other public health experts from various fields. We rushed to the airport and boarded a private jet. Airspace was closed over the entire country, but CDC had received special permission from the Federal Aviation Administration, which allowed people and supplies to be flown into the city.
It was a very tense flight. We knew the city was under attack, and we were the only civilian plane in the sky. As we were approaching, the pilot invited me to enter the cockpit. Suddenly, we spotted a small black dot in the distance; it was quickly moving toward us. I thought it was going to shoot us down. Only moments later, the dot turned into a fighter jet, which drew near our plane, so close I could clearly see the pilot’s face. He did a wing wave and took off: “CDC-1” was cleared for approach. With that welcome, we landed in New York.
Night was already approaching when we arrived. We were fairly close to Ground Zero and the nearby city health department. The air was gray and hazy with smoke, soot, and all sorts of flying debris. The overwhelming sound was that of constant sirens from emergency vehicles in every direction. It all seemed surreal, but soon reality set in.
Our primary mission was to assist the city health department. We were to conduct biological surveillance and identify any suspect pathogens causing infectious diseases; the release of biologic agents was a concern given that this was a terrorist attack. Night had given way to the early hours of morning when we established what we needed for the surveillance.
In addition to surveillance for infectious diseases among the population, we assessed hospital capacities and established a worker safety surveillance system. Concerned about the possibility of being overwhelmed with injuries, we agreed with the city’s health director that CDC should send more Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officers to New York. Over 30 epidemiologists, occupational health specialists, industrial hygienists, and other professionals arrived in the next few days to support our response efforts.
A Change in Priorities
Although we expected to receive large numbers of injured victims in the hospitals, we soon realized with deep sadness that most of them had perished in the crash and collapse of the towers. The sting of this realization was continual as I witnessed the scene around me, which remains with me to this day with clarity. We were across the street from Bellevue Hospital at the health department’s temporary operation site. Next to the hospital were refrigerated trucks transporting bodies from the site. The constant rumble of the motors and blare of the sirens were reminders of the magnitude of loss.
Because nearly all of the victims had perished, we focused our efforts toward occupational health, as worker safety at the site became a major concern. Our team collected information on the types of illnesses and injuries appearing in emergency departments across hospitals, identifying unusual disease symptoms or outbreak clusters. Ranking high were eye injuries and respiratory distress, and soon environmental health concerns such as air quality, food and water safety, and rodent control became a focal point. This injury and disease surveillance helped determine the amounts and types of medical resources needed.
The same night, within hours of the decision to deploy, the first emergency mobilization of the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile arrived in New York at the request of the city’s health department. CDC’s Strategic National Stockpile delivered a 50-ton “push package” of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies to Ground Zero. Other critical equipment, such as respirators/ventilators, personal protective equipment, and medical supplies for treating burn and blast injuries were also sent within 24 hours.
The Anthrax Attacks
My work in the 9/11 response effort ended quite abruptly. Within weeks of deployment to NYC for the World Trade Center disaster, I was called in to handle another emergency: the 2001 anthrax attacks. I traveled back to Atlanta, thinking that I would return to New York the same night. However, I did not go back. Instead, I helped lead a team that investigated anthrax cases. Working with state and local health officials, we tracked every potential case, established investigative field teams. The anthrax cases were eventually found to be connected to letters containing anthrax spores and led to 17 infections and 5 deaths.
Lessons for the Future
I am truly proud to have been a small part of an agency that dealt with a crisis as catastrophic as the September 11th and 2001anthrax attacks with dedication and dignity. As I reflect on the past ten years following these tragedies, I consider the lessons we have learned and the progress we have made to not only respond to emergencies such as bioterrorist threats, disease outbreaks, and natural disasters, but also prepare for them. Although there is still much to be done through additional effort, investment, and support of local and state capacity, we have made strategic investments and created sophisticated systems and can be proud of such improvements. Nevertheless, we should never forget why these improvements were made and why they need to continue to be made; September 11th is a constant reminder.
What do you remember from the 9/11 attacks? Where were you and what were you doing? What are you doing in honor of the 10th anniversary? Tell us by submitting a comment.
Want to read more about how preparedness and response has changed since September 11, 2001? Check out the Trust for America’s Health Report, “Remembering 9/11 and Anthrax: Public Health’s Vital Role in National Defense.” You can also read Dr. Ali Khan’s latest article in the Journal Lancet.