The things we've carried

Overwhelming weight of emotional whirlwind lingers in these solemn days of reflection
Sunday, September 8, 2002

THE RESCUERS
Heroines helped lead fight for life, too

More than 2,800 people have been confirmed dead or missing from the World Trade Center site. But an estimated 25,000 people were evacuated safely, thanks to the work of hundreds of firefighters, police officers and emergency workers.

Some of those rescue heroes were heroines. In "Women at Ground Zero: Stories of Courage and Compassion," Susan Hagen and Mary Carouba have collected the stories of 30 firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians and others who responded to the attacks. Like their brethren, they worked in a constantly deteriorating environment, without radio communication, relying on their training, their wits and one another.

Carol Paukner, 37, a New York police officer, and her rookie partner arrived at the World Trade Center shortly after the first plane struck:

"We ran to the base of the second building where the bookstore was located and immediately started evacuating people. They were running through the doors, and we were trying to calm them down. Meanwhile, there was stuff falling off the building, and we tried to keep everybody off the overhang. We were telling them, 'Please stay under the shelter! Move to the left, go up Church Street, and get out of here!'

"I assisted many people who were injured out of the building. One woman had multiple sclerosis, and I carried her up the escalator and carried her up to Broadway, one block away, where they were setting up a triage center. There was a big, tall gentleman in Army fatigues, and I was so tired and out of breath from carrying her that I said, 'Sir, would you please assist me, and carry her the rest of the way around the corner?' He said, 'Surely,' and he helped her out."

Like many rescue workers that day, Paukner herself became an injured victim struggling for a way out of the collapsing towers:

"Later, we heard a huge plane coming in. We couldn't see anything because we were under the overhang, but we heard this plane and the echo of it. Then it hit the building. I got blown through the exit, but I was able to catch the door of the building as I came out. I just held on. There was so much smoke and soot that I couldn't breathe. I was thinking, This is it. I'm going to die. I was half in, half out of the building. People were blowing past me, particles were flying, people were flying. Stuff was coming down right on top of me, and I couldn't see anything. I held on with one hand, and the wind force was so strong that I couldn't get my other hand up to the doorway to pull myself through.

"Then my hand hit a leg. I pulled on the leg, and it was a man. He was alive, and he was screaming to me because it was so loud. 'Grab my hand! Grab my hand! So I grabbed his hand, I pulled myself to him, and we huddled in this corner that I originally thought looked like a safe place, where I'd planned to meet my partner. I just covered up with him and held on to him. We were lying on bodies and trying to hold on.

"Then it was silent. We couldn't breathe, we were choking, and we couldn't see because of all the stuff in our eyes. I didn't know who this man was. I didn't know if he was a firefighter, if he was a cop, or if he was a civilian. He said to me, 'Do you have a flashlight?' I said, 'Yes, I do,' and I pulled the flashlight out of my belt.

"But even with the flashlight, the smoke was so thick, we still couldn't see. He said, 'Don't let go of me.' I said, 'I'm not letting go of you,' and he said, 'I'm not letting go of you, either.' We were in there alone, we were trying to crawl out, and we were calling for people, but a lot of them were already dead. We continued to crawl, but there was so much debris that we couldn't crawl very far, so we stood up and felt our way around the building. Finally he said, 'I know where I'm going.' I said, 'Wherever you're going, I'm going with you. If I'm going to die, I'm not going to die alone.'

"Meanwhile we were throwing up, and we were trying to clear all the dust and debris off ourselves. We didn't know what side of the building we were on or where we were, because we'd been knocked around so much. Through all of this, we kept hearing a man's voice saying, 'Holy Mary, Mother of God.' Then he'd say, 'Jesus Christ.' He kept repeating the same lines over and over again. Later I asked the guy I was with, 'Did you ever physically see this man?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'Did he ever physically touch you?' He said, 'No.' But we both heard him talking to us. My dad had just died, and I'd like to think it was my dad who was there with us, who talked us out.

"When we got to the street area, we saw all the crushed firetrucks and ambulances and dead bodies - parts of people - pieces that looked like birds. By then the air was starting to clear a little, and I saw that the man I was with, Richie Vitale, was a cop. We were flipping out, holding each other, and saying, 'You saved my life! You saved my life!' "

Paukner injured a shoulder and knee in the ordeal and also has respiratory problems.

"Richie and I still talk, and when we have our hard times, he'll give me a call or I'll give him a call. We visit each other, and we know each other's families. I feel very close to him."

(For information about "Women at Ground Zero" (Alpha Books, $22.95), visit www.womenatgroundzero.com.)