July 17, 1996
At 8:31pm EDT, 12 minutes after takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport, TWA Flight 800 exploded and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean just off the coast of Long Island. The Boeing 747 was scheduled to fly to Rome, with a stopover in Paris. All 230 people on board were killed. The National Transportation Safety Board released a report indicating that the most probable cause of the accident was an explosion of flammable fuel/air vapors in a fuel tank, and, although it could not be determined with certainty, the most likely cause of the explosion was a short circuit.
Central Park Medical Unit immediately dispatched two ambulances to the crash, but unfortunately there were no survivors to treat. Brennon Jones, a long time member of CPMU, who was part of our response to TWA 800, wrote the following reflection of his experience as an ambulance volunteer…
A Piece of It is with Me Always, Written November 20, 2001
I live in Dili, East Timor, in Southeast Asia, on the other side of the world. I work for the United Nations, helping rebuild this little country that was totally destroyed and traumatized by political violence a little over two years ago.
I am a journalist –- spent two years in Vietnam at the height of the war, and have, over the years, worked in a number of other conflict zones in Asia and Africa. I’ve had the runner’s high of completing a New York marathon and the cold low of once ending up in the water off Kennedy Airport in February in a DC-10. I’m old enough and privileged enough to have been in a number of challenging and life-affirming situations.
But, you know what? Just put on my tombstone that I was an Emergency Medical Technician who worked on an ambulance for nearly a decade on the streets of New York.
It’s an extraordinary license to enter the lives of people at that critical moment when they most need help. It’s also a license to schmoose, and I’ve done it unabashedly with just about everyone over the years.
You learn stories you would never have known. You enter lives, and there’s no turning back. There is an expression in Vietnamese. I learned it in 1969, while burying Vietnamese friends and commiserating with their families.
“Toi den chia buon via gia dinh, ong.” It guides my life to this day.
“I have come to share the sorrow of your family.” That’s what it means. Literally, share the sorrow — in the sense of carrying away a bit of the pain, lessening the emotional load. It stays with me forever.
That’s what happens a lot in emergency medicine. It can, at times, be an emotional burden, but mostly it’s a sacred trust.
I work with a volunteer ambulance corps in New York — the only one in Manhattan. It’s a part of the city’s “911” EMS response system so we get called all over. It was at the World Trade Center on September 11th. My friends e-mailed me daily in the aftermath, about their anxieties, the sleeplessness. One of them was there for days, picking up body parts. “Brennon,” he writes, “I will never be the same!”
I live in Dili, but my mind resides in New York, with them, my friends and partners. I longed to be there, although of course I really didn’t. It’s all about backing each other up in those moments of crucial need. And there’s lots of emotional need. It leaves me drinking in the dead of night.
They were there in Belle Harbor, Queens for American Airlines Flight 587. I was with them in spirit, driven by the memory of TWA 800 — one of those disasters that had its fifteen minutes in the national consciousness. That hot, July night a few years back, alerted by the Coast Guard that the big jet with 230 people had dropped from the radar screen, we hit the road within 20 minutes – two ambulances wailing fast, non-stop through the toll booths, headed East on the Long Island Expressway, fueled by the adrenaline of whatever lay ahead. But the long night passed, and the bright flashing ambulances gave way to black suburban vans, the FBI, fearing terrorism, had moved in, calling it a crime scene, and squirreled away the growing pile of body bags.
We returned home, at sunrise, empty and disconsolate. The depression really hit home when we got locked bumper-to-bumper in the early morning commuter traffic, dog tired, drained most of all by the knowledge that our ultimate destination was our day jobs.
With American Flight 587, our medical corps lucked out. There they were, Rafael and Frank, the full-time lawyers, and John, the aspiring doctor who just aced his MCATs. Even though they couldn’t work miracles for the passengers on that doomed flight, they didn’t return home empty. They saved two lives – people injured on the ground and in respiratory distress. They rushed them to Peninsula Hospital. Then they went back for more.
Most of us who work in emergency medicine are fairly solid citizens, many nurturing families and more than a few, advanced degrees, usually in medicine or law, studying hard in the front of the ambulance during down time.
It’s ridiculous at times the amount of responsibility that gets heaped on the city’s medics and emergency medical technicians, in the desperate search by the physically and emotionally injured for an authority figure in the midst of a crisis.
Occasionally it can be just too much. It happened to me the day I had to wade into an excrement-laden Upper East Side apartment to help remove an AIDS patient in his final throes of life. His well-off neighbors had smelled troubled but closed their doors to it. He was abandoned by family and friends, left to fester out his last days alone and physically incapacitated.
Another time, in a Chelsea housing project, I treated a grandmother who had taken a razorblade to her arms making long vertical slashes — a vibrant cry for help, for a modicum of attention? Psychological first aid (PFA) is the most important item in our trauma bags, but these are the situations where I just come up empty-handed.
Nonetheless, the city has a marvelous emergency medical safety net. It’s designed, ironically, on the medical lessons learned in combat in Vietnam – fast response, quick stabilization of the neural system, heart rate, respirations, blood pressure. Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), defibrillation, telemetry, push the “meds” – buy them time — get them quickly to the emergency room, usually within five to 10 minutes.
Recently, here in East Timor, a minibus, over-packed with 30-plus people, many clinging on top and along the sides, went head on with a military vehicle on a tight turn. Thirteen died in the first hour, even more in the aftermath. Had this been New York City, most would have been saved, home now with their loved ones. Our technology, our medical safety net, it’s something quite miraculous.
One time a Columbia University professor went into cardiac arrest while bicycling on a quiet Sunday morning in Central Park. We got him and his wife to the emergency room and then with the doctors and nurses shocked him a half dozen times trying frantically to restart his heart. Finally, it fought back.
A few weeks later, he and his family came to the Park to say thanks to me and my partner. That’s when the flip side of that Vietnamese expression clicked in. “I share the happiness with your family.” A piece of it is with me always! It’s an honor, really. That’s what emergency medicine in New York City is all about.
– Brennon Jones