While so many first-responders gave their lives in their attempts to save others on September 11, one group witnessed a succession of open miracles — and no losses. Hatzolah leaders relive the Divine Providence of that horrifying day, which they didn’t believe they’d survive.
arrive at Hatzolah’s Flatbush headquarters on a brightly sunny August day so very much like the morning of September 11 2001. I’ve always felt that that day of horror now seared into the collective consciousness of humanity simply as “9/11 was somehow made all the more terrifying by the serenely pleasant morning into which it burst with maniacal intensity.
I’m here to listen to some prominent Hatzolah members share their recollections of 9/11 for the tenth anniversary coverage of that tragedy of tragedies — but I fail. Because as I sit across from Heshy Jacob Hatzolah’s indomitable president it quickly becomes clear I’ve gotten it all wrong: for Heshy as for Hatzolah CEO Rabbi Dovid Cohen and board member Zelig Gitelis who joined our conversation there are no 9/11 “anniversaries ” tenth or otherwise. They — like the 185 other Hatzolah members who spent September 11 2001 in downtown Manhattan — relive those frightening hours every day of their lives.
Before sitting down to talk Heshy insists that we listen to the first few minutes of the tapes of the Hatzolah dispatcher receiving the initial frantic reports from the field of the attack sending every possible unit speeding toward the Towers. It’s a deeply surreal experience to sit there knowing how events would unfold hearing human beings — Yidden — trying to comprehend the incomprehensible. The eight or so of us packed into that tiny room riveted to that recording are listening to a world that was just minutes away from losing its pre-9/11 innocence forever.
With that bracing introduction Heshy frames the conversation to follow: “This isn’t a story about Jacob or Cohen or Gitelis or about any of the 185 or so Hatzolah members who were there that day. You know what it’s about? About a year and a half ago I was asked to speak at an NCSY event on the subject of ‘Are nissim seen in this generation?’ And the answer I gave was an emphatic “Yes.”
“This is a story“ Heshy continues “about how the Ribono shel Olam did nissim v’nifla’os for us on that day to the point that when at the end of the day the head of the Emergency Medical Service (EMS) system Chief Robert McCracken asked Itzy Stern ‘How many guys did you lose?’ Itzy didn’t want to tell him how many we lost because we hadn’t lost any and they had lost hundreds. So he began describing a broken leg here a broken arm there. Chief McCracken interrupted him: ‘No I mean how many died?’ So Itzy sheepishly said ‘None.’ The chief thought for a moment and said ‘Tomorrow I’m staying with you. It’s evident G-d was with you today.’ ”
I look at Heshy and he’s not here he’s there in that place as he continues in a voice thick with emotion: “For ten years I’ve walked around wondering ‘Why?’ We were in the Towers we were close on all sides so why did the Ribono Shel Olam do that neis for us openly? And I believe the answer is because we all came b’achdus.”
Heshy says this was the message of the dispatcher’s tape. “You heard where they came from: Boro Park Flatbush Williamsburg Crown Heights Upper East Side West Side Lower East Side Riverdale Canarsie Queens every single neighborhood came for one reason — because Jews and other people needed them. So the story here is that if Klal Yisrael is unified we would also be able to see nissim in many other places.”
He pauses a sob caught in his throat.
Heshy Jacob is a doer a leader made in the tough-on-the-outside soft-on-the-inside mold. His role as Hatzolah’s president is a volunteer one — he’s been a member since 1968 about a year after its founding. A former Wall Street trader his current “day job” is that of managing the East River co-ops. One might call Heshy whose roots in New York’s oldest Jewish neighborhood go back over a century “Mr. East Side.” So when he begins to cry it might catch you by surprise. But then a lot of grown men cried on 9/11.
“I was at the Vista Hotel … and when I got down there there were exactly two fire trucks an FDNY ambulance Naftoli Solomon’s ambulance and ours on the scene. What did the Ribono shel Olam do? As I came down Vesey Street I saw those two buses [i.e. ambulances] were on the left so Got hot geholfen and I made right and parked by the telephone building. Had I made a left I would have been under the building. So the Eibeshter openly guided our decisions. It’s not for nothing that Rav Reuven Feinstein paskened for us that a member who was there that day and hasn’t gone by the site for thirty days is mechuyav to make a brachah of ‘she’Asah li neis b’makom hazeh.’ ”
“Maybe it’s a mussar thing and I shouldn’t say it or maybe I should say it” Heshy comments “but I have no other explanation for why we all escaped. I’m not G-d’s accountant so He didn’t exactly check with me to say ‘Okay Heshy here’s why I’m doing it.’ ” But Heshy has his theory. “No one had an agenda no one had p’niyos [ulterior motives]. We all came together and the Ribono shel Olam saved us all that day.”
Every Car Was Crushed
Zelig Gitelis takes his cue, beginning in the matter-of-fact tone of the veteran paramedic that he is, one who in his decades of Hatzolah work had seen it all — until that day: “Driving in from Flatbush, I came out of the Battery Tunnel, south of the Towers. That’s where the Brooklyn members were stationed. We had five buses lined up there. The Upper and Lower East Siders and Riverdale stayed on the west side near the Vista Hotel and Queens and Williamsburg were to the east, on Broadway and Church. So we surrounded the buildings from all sides.
“As I entered the tunnel the second plane hit, and when I came out of the tunnel I had to zigzag between body parts and airplane parts, because after the first building, the North Tower, was hit, people started jumping, nebach, right away. I drove to what we thought was going to be the staging area to wait for the wounded, but even though we were lined up neatly, Chief McCracken came over to us and asked: ‘Can you guys move one block further south?’ They wanted to set up the space we were in, on the corner of Liberty Street and South End Avenue facing the South Tower, as a triage area, where, in a mass casualty situation, the wounded get tagged and those that have the best chance of survival get treated and transported first.
Fortunately, we all listened and moved all our ambulances further south onto South End Avenue; it was one of those days where nobody said ‘Who are you to tell me what to do?’ That spot, where we were originally, is where the building fell and every car that was left in that area was crushed. So had we not moved, that would’ve been our fate, too.”
I ask whether the field hospital-like triage areas that EMS had set up were ultimately used for that purpose. Zelig’s reply is a shocker: “EMS felt the hospitals were going to be overwhelmed, so they set up triage centers — essentially field hospitals — one on the north side at one of the piers on 17th Street and another on the south side at one of the ferry terminals, which is where I was. All the EMTs were to be on one side with the less critically wounded and all the doctors and paramedics on the other side with the critical patients. We thought we’d be treating patients there for hours. Never happened — not one single patient. The few patients they had, they were able to take to area hospitals. At the hospitals, they were waiting outside expecting to get massive numbers of wounded, which we never delivered to them.”
Heshy adds: “The few people I had were people with some debris in their eyes, some cuts, some minor abrasions, because those who got out of the buildings were only hit by debris, and those who didn’t get out were dead.”
In total, of course, Hatzolah members, as the primary first responders on the south and west sides of the World Trade Center, ended up treating hundreds of wounded persons. According to Rabbi Mechel Handler, Chevra Hatzolah’s executive director, just between the attack on the North Tower at 8:46 a.m. and the South Tower’s collapse at 9:59, the twenty-four Hatzolah ambulances at the scene transported close to 140 patients to area hospitals, each loaded up with four to six victims, many with severe burns. Its members also took the lead in evacuating over a thousand people onto various boats that took them across the river to Jersey City.
Holding Hands Together
Zelig shares an episode of personal salvation: “I was together with a group of other Hatzolah members across West Street from the Towers. All of a sudden, we heard the rumble of the South Tower, which was hit second but fell first, starting to come down. Remember, nobody in their wildest dreams thought it would implode downward; everyone thought that, at most, the upper section would topple over on its side. So we all ran like crazy. We ran into a parking garage, because it was the easiest thing to get into. But when the building fell, the opening filled up with debris and closed off the exit, and all the other doors were sealed shut, so there was now no way to get out.”
Heshy interjects: “I must tell you that when that announcement came over the transmitter — I didn’t even know Zelig was in there — ‘We have fifteen members trapped in the garage,’ the thought that came to my mind was ‘My goodness, I’ve got to go home tonight and tell fifteen women that they’re almanos.’$$SEPARATEQUOTES$$”
Zelig continues: “There were about ten members with me and about a dozen other people whom we found there. They were in there for quite a while, until they finally decided either they were all going to get out or they were all going to be trapped there. So we decided we’d all hold hands. There was absolutely no light and we couldn’t see a thing, so the only way to make sure we didn’t leave anyone behind was by agreeing to all hold hands together.”
Heshy Jacob had used that word, “together,” in describing Hatzolah members’ headlong rush to the Towers, and now Zelig had, too, in speaking of their escape from the jaws of death. They’d come together from every direction to save others, and now, one short hour later, they were clasping hands together, this time to save themselves.
The entire group went up and down the stairs that way until they found one exit they were able to force open. When they emerged from the building, he says, “It was really like one of these descriptions of the morning after a nuclear war and, you know, you think you’re the only people alive. We didn’t see anybody else, just white dust all over.”
When the South Tower collapsed, says Heshy, “the first thing that came to my mind then was makkas choshech, because the darkness was felt with your hands, it was so dark from the dirt, and I said to myself ‘My goodness gracious, are we going to live through this?’ Even if you saved yourself physically, if you opened your mouth, you got concrete and asbestos dust in, so that you couldn’t get a breath into your mouth. By that time we had run out of water and there was a Poland Spring delivery truck there that the guy abandoned, so I said ‘Guys, it’s hefker, get the water, empty the truck out,’ and they did.”
At one point, Heshy recalls, he was frightened to see that suddenly, all the Con Ed people jumped onto their trucks and started driving off. “I see Con Ed leaving,” he says, “so I stop one of them and ask him what’s going on. He says the main gas line ruptured and it’s going to explode under this entire part of Manhattan.” What they didn’t realize, however, was that because the gas was blowing out of the lines with such intense pressure, the flames couldn’t be sucked in to ignite the gas. So the huge explosion they feared, never happened, and, instead, the system eventually just shut down.
“I’ve Lost My Son”
In an earlier telephone conversation with Heshy Jacob, he’d mentioned a story involving his son, Shalom, who’s also a Hatzolah member, and I ask him if he would mind sharing it. So he rewinds, back to the beginning of the day when he was one of the first ambulances on the scene: “At about 8:45 that morning, I was running late and was about to head down to an 8:30 minyan, when my son, who was on his way to work near Park Row, called me and said ‘Dad, a plane hit the World Trade Center.’ I envisioned a little Piper Cub, and figured, ‘Okay, so it went in,’ but I then looked out the window, from which you can see — you could have seen — the Twin Towers and I saw the smoke. I came downstairs and met my mechutan, Chaim Lazar, who said to me, jokingly, ‘Heshy, you go downtown and I’ll take care of the East Side.’
“I headed down East Broadway in the ES-2 ambulance, driven by Davey Weinberger, and in a few short minutes, we were on Vesey Street, where we could see Mayor Guliani standing at West Broadway gazing at the inferno atop the North Tower. A call came in of an unconscious man in front of J&R Music World on Park Row. I ran to Park Row, and it turned out that somebody had fainted and there was another lady with severe cuts and wounds. We put them in the back of my bus and took them up to Beth Israel. We unloaded the patients and with First Avenue totally empty, we were back at the World Trade Center before the second plane hit.
“When it did, I turned around and I saw the jet fuel of the plane come down as a river of fire. That’s why they couldn’t find anyone, because they were incinerated. Thousands of gallons of burning fuel fell to the ground and every fireman, every policeman that was under there.… The mistake they made was that they set up their command center on the plaza between the two Towers — how were they supposed to know a second Tower would be hit? — so when the second plane hit they were all vaporized.”
Zelig interjects: “I gotta tell you, I was with a member who’s in the construction business and he told me right away, ‘Zelig, that building’s gonna collapse,’ and this was way before it collapsed, a half hour in advance.”
Heshy picks up the story thread: “When the building came down, we realized how bad it was, because we saw the plume of smoke and dust and dirt coming towards us, so I told the driver, Davey Weinberger, “move the bus,” but we only went about twenty feet, because we couldn’t see an inch in front of us and we were afraid we’d drive into pedestrians or crash into the back of a fire truck. We stopped the ambulance and I bent my head down, like they used to tell you to do in an attack. But then I said to myself, ‘Why are you bending your head down? If this building comes down we’re dead anyway, so sit straight, they’ll find you better.’ For the next seven or eight minutes, there was virtually no visibility, you saw nothing.
“As it started to clear up a little, I remembered that my son was down there, much closer to the buildings than I was, and I was struck with the horrible realization: I’ve lost my son. I didn’t know where he was. At that very moment, the frantic voice of Naftoli Solomon, from the East Side-3 ambulance, came crackling over the airwaves: ‘I’m buried alive, I’m buried alive!’ So over the bus radio, I said ‘Naftoli, we’re going to find you.’ I knew I wouldn’t find him … how was I going to find him? He’s buried alive underneath what turned out to be four feet of debris, there was no finding.
“So at that moment, I started thinking about where my son was, and I remembered a story with Rav Elchonon Wasserman, who was walking in the street with both a talmid and his son, when a menacing dog ran toward them, and Rav Elchonon grabbed his son. Somehow they got away, and when he came home, Rav Elchonon started to cry, ‘Why didn’t I grab my talmid?’ So I said to myself: ‘Here I am thinking of my son, but Naftoli Solomon is buried alive.’ I asked the Ribono shel Olam to be moichel me, and just then Naftoli’s voice came over the air: ‘I got out!’ He had been buried under soft debris.”
Heshy shares Naftoli Solomon’s later comment. He said that when he was screaming “I’m buried alive,” and Heshy answered him, “Naftoli, we’ll find you,” Naftoli thought to himself, “Here I am already in the Oilom HaEmes, and all I’m hearing is Heshy Jacob — he’s in charge up here too?!”
“At that moment,” Heshy continues, “I’ll tell you what I did, I promised a thousand dollars to Rabbi Meir Baal Haness if I find my son. Twenty minutes later, I found him — he’d driven away through the thick plume as the South Tower came down. As a young guy he didn’t care, he just drove in the dark! I ran up to him and I kissed him and hugged him and I exclaimed, “You know, I just gave a thousand dollars to tzedakah to find you.” He said to me, ‘Dad, that’s all I’m worth? You didn’t give ten thousand dollars? Only a thousand you gave?’ Laughing through my tears, I said, ‘Shalom, I didn’t know you were alive, here I was thinking a few moments ago that I was gonna have to go home tonight and tell your wife and kids you’re gone.’
Pointing to a picture of an ambulance coated in white ash and surrounded completely by mountains of metal, bricks, and glass, Heshy explains that this is the retrieved East Side-3 bus that was first on the scene. “This will give you an idea,” he says, “someplace under this debris, Naftoli was trapped when he ran out of the ambulance. See the windshield? Had he stayed inside, what would have happened to him? He would have been dead. Normally, you would think the best place to stay would be inside the vehicle, but there’s a hole where a boulder came right through the front window. There was a similar incident, where a Hatzolah member was standing talking to a fireman sitting in his truck. When the building came down, the member dove down on the floor next to the tire, and after the debris finished raining down, he got up. But unfortunately, a brick went through the front window of the fire truck and the firefighter was killed.”
Saved by the Starter
We often use the phrase Hashgachah pratis unthinkingly, but its precise meaning is “individual Providence” and nothing better exemplifies the truth of that concept than stories like these and others that emerged from this day, in which each individual met his own tailor-made fate. Heshy tells the story of his son-in-law, Yitz Klug, also a Hatzolah member, who worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission at 9 World Trade Center. On his way to work that morning, Yitz saw a Williamsburg ambulance making its way down to the scene, and he opted to clamber aboard the ambulance rather than go in to work. They loaded up seven or eight walking wounded with cuts and bruises and broken arms, and took them to Beekman Hospital.
After unloading their patients, they got back into the ambulance for the return trip. No such luck: the brand-new ambulance wouldn’t start. For fifteen minutes they kept trying to start it, and finally the engine turned over. Ten seconds after they pulled out of the bay, the North Tower came down. Had the bus started right up, it would have been under the building when it came down. “So is that a neis?” Heshy asks rhetorically. “Yeah. In other words, the Ribono shel Olam said to the bus, ‘You sit still, you’re not going anywhere.’ So everybody on that ambulance was saved because it didn’t want to start.”
Were there changes to Hatzolah’s operating procedures based on the impact of those experiences?
“After 9/11, there was a lot of discussion in the administration of Hatzolah about whether we should start training our members for mass casualty situations,” Zelig responds. “But our rabbanim told us we’re not allowed to put ourselves in danger. In emergency scenarios, there’s something called a hot zone, a warm zone, and a cold zone. We’re supposed to be in the cold zone. Once the fire and police personnel determine the area is safe and they need an agency to transport patients to the hospital, we can do it. But we’re not allowed to run into burning buildings or to get involved in evacuations.”
Nevertheless, Hatzolah members have undergone training with Israel’s national ambulance corps, Magen David Adom. Several classes were held in the Flatbush center, and a hundred members traveled to Israel for additional sessions.
Rabbi Cohen, whose current role as Hatzolah’s CEO follows a long career in Jewish communal leadership, observes that “not everything is a mass casualty scene; we have many midsize calamities. We had an incident a couple years ago here in Flatbush, where a large group of schoolgirls fell down a grate. Within five minutes, we had fifteen ambulances there between Boro Park and Flatbush, and forty or fifty members, but the important thing was that we had coordination. The coordinators from the two areas took over and it was orderly. Any member who didn’t need to be there was kindly asked to leave.”
Crown Jewel of Chesed
Way before 9/11, as Heshy is quick to point out, Jewish leaders considered Hatzolah’s selfless acts of chesed as the “crown jewel” of the Orthodox Jewish community’s endeavors on behalf of the public. “Rav Moshe Feinstein ztz”l once asked his secretary to ask me if he’s considered a member of Hatzolah. Why? He was our posek, and he wanted to be considered a member of Hatzolah. So I said, ‘You’re the posek, you’re the leader, so m’meila you’re considered a member of Hatzolah.’
“You want to know the most beautiful thing about Hatzolah? You can find a kippah srugah, in Washington Heights you can find a Yekke, you can go to Williamsburg and find vaise zocken and halbe shich, you have someone who davens Ashkenaz, Sfard, Sefardi. And when we get together, we’re all one — and that’s why we’re matzliach.”
Hatzolah has grown from being an idea in the mind of one Williamsburg Jew, Hershel Weber, into the largest volunteer ambulance corps in the world, one that has a save rate — the percentage of cardiac arrest victims who are brought into a hospital with a heart rhythm — of over 14 percent, as compared with a general New York City rate of less than 1 percent. And, says Heshy, “Contrary to what they’re always saying about how the Jewish community takes, we give back between $25–$35 million a year in services for nothing.”
Rabbi Cohen is quick to clarify Heshy Jacob’s statement: “That doesn’t mean we have a $35-million budget. What we have is a $7-million annual budget, with another 25 million dollars worth of volunteer effort. We have eight to ten paid employees in the entire Hatzolah, three of whom are executives sitting in tiny offices and the rest are office staff.”
One of Hatzolah’s most memorable mobilizations came seven years before 9/11 when a young Boro Park schoolgirl named Suri Feldman went missing for two days and nights in a forest on the border between Connecticut and Rhode Island. Heshy Jacob recalls how that first day, 200 volunteers went up.
“At the end of the day, Luzer Brodt z”l, then Hatzolah’s president, went over to the head state trooper and said, ‘Okay, how many people do you want tomorrow?’ to which he responded ‘Two thousand.’ So Luzer said ‘Okay.’ The guy looks at him incredulously and says, ‘What do you mean, okay, 2000?’ Luzer replies, ‘I mean we’ll have 2,000 volunteers.’ Thsavee trooper says, ‘No, bring me a thousand.” Luzer called bus companies, and the next day, we had 1,200 searchers five hours from New York.”
The non-Jewish locals simply couldn’t believe that all these strangers, who didn’t even know who this girl was, took off a day from work to travel to search for her in the woods. “They couldn’t comprehend,” says Heshy, “what achdus was.” And his voice breaks again, recalling this other mission, juxtaposed to the destruction of 9/11.
“There were two camps, they were searching from both sides of the woods, and when they found her that Friday morning, the two groups started dancing and singing Chasdei Hashem ki lo somnu. And a trooper asked me, ‘How do they all know to sing the same song?’ So what am I going to tell him, how at the Yam Suf all the Yidden sang shirah at the same time?”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 375)