"The strangest kind of letdown"

On September’s day of terror, Yale geared up to treat survivors who never came.

On September 11, a day of death and panic elsewhere, there was an odd sort of quiet in New Haven. In the medical school’s clinics and classrooms, the day’s routine activities fell by the wayside, overwhelmed by the horror of what was happening in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. The medical center geared up for an onslaught of trauma cases that never materialized. For 24 hours, Yale-New Haven Hospital was on disaster alert for survivors who might have been pulled from the wreckage of the collapsed World Trade Center only 90 miles away. But, said a hospital spokeswoman, “It was the strangest kind of letdown. There were no patients to help.”

Medical school faculty and alumni who provided aid in Lower Manhattan experienced a similar disappointment. Emergency physician Scott Weir, M.D., a veteran of search-and-rescue efforts including the 1998 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Nairobi, had never seen anything like the devastation at the World Trade Center. During a week on the scene he treated no survivors, only rescuers with minor injuries. Kenneth C. Rondello, M.P.H. ’94, M.D., spent four days at the blast site and Chelsea Piers, where an ice rink became a morgue and the set of television’s “Spin City” a trauma center. “No news footage you’ve seen or descriptions you’ve heard can truly do it justice,” he said. “The air was permeated with the nauseating, acrid smell of burning jet fuel. Everything was covered in inches of gray ash, as if a volcano had erupted.”

Life went on at Yale but the tragedy haunted everything that followed. No gathering could begin without some acknowledgment of “the events of September 11.” The day of the attacks, classes were canceled for first- and second-year medical students, some of whom traveled to New York to volunteer in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. That first night, hundreds of students and faculty members carried candles down College Street to a vigil at Cross Campus.

In the days that followed, the University responded with drives for blood and donations, along with lectures and discussions on terrorism, foreign policy and Islam. Students at the School of Public Health held a teach-in. Medical and public health students visited local merchants of Middle Eastern descent to reassure them at a time when they might fear discrimination. On September 28, speakers invited by the Department of Psychiatry and the Child Study Center explored the ways in which people cope with a world turned upside down.

Among those determined to get on with their lives were Edwin Thrower, Ph.D., a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Pharmacology, and his fiancée, Bozena Sakowska. They decided to go ahead with their wedding September 15, even though his parents and friends in England could attend only via a conference call. The ceremony included a prayer for victims of the attacks, and ended on an upbeat note. “We had friends come from Manhattan,” Thrower said. “They said this was very much needed—a celebration of joy, love and life.”

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Edwin Thrower

Visiting Research Scientist in Medicine (Digestive Diseases)