Although remembering her work as a nurse in the days after Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City is always emotional for Pam Charles, she is willing to share her story.
“We owe it to people to remember what happened,” she said.
Pam and her husband, Dr. Pierre Charles, a surgeon, helped treat firefighters and other first responders Sept. 12. The Beloit couple got an up-close look at what befell them after the national tragedy.
The Charleses were in New York City the day of the attacks because Pierre was attending a surgical conference. They found a babysitter to watch their children, and Pam joined her husband for a few days in the Big Apple.
Like so many others, she will never forget the morning of 9/11, a Tuesday:
She was packing up to go back to Beloit with the TV on in the background while Pierre was attending a function in a hotel conference room. When she saw the footage of the plane hitting the World Trade Center, she ran down to the lobby and demanded to break into the room full of 300 surgeons to alert them of the news. A woman outside the conference told her not to enter, but Pam burst through the door and squatted down to speak to her husband who was sitting in the front row.
“I told him about the bombings. I said ‘You’ve got to come with me. We have to go. We have to help,’” she said.
“I tried to tell her she had been watching a movie. I said ‘Relax, let’s talk about it,’” Pierre said.
When Pierre realized what had happened, he sprung to action, giving Pam his tennis shoes to replace her sandals.
With Pam wearing her husband’s shoes, the two got their car keys and identification and credit cards and boarded a tour bus outside the hotel with some other surgeons. They told the driver they had to get to the World Trade Center—Ground Zero. Traffic wasn’t moving, so Pierre got out of the bus and started banging on cars to get other drivers out of the way.
“He cleared the path to get the bus on its way,” Pam said. “It was 3 miles away, but you could see it ahead of us, the cloud of smoke and dust.”
FEMA personnel stopped the bus and directed the crew to set up a triage station in a pediatrician’s office. As they gathered supplies, FEMA officials directed everyone to the Chelsea Piers on the west side of Manhattan where a larger area was available for staging. Once there, medical professionals opened up long folding tables, converting them into beds.
“That’s where they were going to bring survivors,” Pam said. “We thought they would be bringing in thousands of people. Hospitals delivered emergency supplies, and cruise ships brought food, but we didn’t have any patients.”
Sadly, they learned that people either ran and escaped the explosion or didn’t make it.
“Not one survivor arrived,” Pam said.
The Charleses stayed for the rest of the day and then returned to the hotel to get some sleep.
“We started walking home. We saw firemen crying in their fire stations trying to console each other,” Pam recalled.
“They just lost so many of their friends,” Pierre said.
They returned to the piers the next day at 6 a.m. Pierre stayed at the staging area to await any first responders. FEMA radioed to request nurses. Pierre stayed back to see if he could be of any help while Pam boarded a police van to Ground Zero.
Pam never will forget the sights she saw near the crash site, including meals still sitting out on restaurant tables, salads assembled to be served.
“You could see what it looked like when those planes hit and what everyone left behind,” Pam said.
Once at Ground Zero, Pam and other nurses walked up escalators and came to a broken window where they would see their patients down below: hundreds of first responders and civilians. They were laboring tirelessly in bucket brigades on top of the rubble trying to locate survivors and remains.
“Firemen would come in with injuries. It was such a dangerous place. There was broken glass, toxic chemicals and fires burning under the rubble,” Pam said. “Firemen were in there trying to save their friends. There were people buried, people they loved, and they were trying to get them out.”
Pam had to help fire and police personnel with bandages and flushing their eyes out with water to remove chunks of powdered concrete and other debris. The firemen wouldn’t quit working. One retired fireman with injured legs refused to leave, saying his friends were in a fire truck that had been flattened.
“I brought him first aid for his legs. He got dressed and went right back at it,” Pam said.
Other firefighters just needed to talk. She recalled one young man who said all of his friends were dead.
“I will never forget that, and I just hugged him,” she said. “He stood there with me for five minutes and then walked back into it.”
Pam recalled being alerted that help was needed for a deceased woman and a live fireman who needed help getting out. Eventually it was determined the fireman had died and the woman was alive.
Pierre had spent Sept. 12 at the triage center treating injured firefighters.
At 7 that night, Pam told someone from FEMA she was ready to go. She asked how to get back and was told she would have to find a boat. She was able to get a ride from a civilian boater who had been delivering supplies to the triage station. Pam recalled seeing the Statue of Liberty with all the smoke billowing behind it on her way back to the pier via the boat. The Charleses met up and walked back to the hotel together.
On Sept. 13, Pierre returned to his conference. Pam recalled going across the street to talk with the firefighters at their station. One young man told her he was there when the World Trade Center collapsed. He said friends ran in to save him and died while he escaped.
For Pam, every 9/11 anniversary is painful, but she said she appreciates that she and Pierre were there to help alongside hundreds of other volunteers. She will never forget the bravery and dedication of the police and firefighters who risked their lives to save others.
“We’ve visited the site many times since. It’s a beautiful memorial now. Hard to imagine that such a horrible event happened where green grass and a bright new building now stands,” she said. “We can, over time, heal from such a tragedy as a country, but we owe it to the thousands who lost their lives, and to their loved ones who survived them, to never forget.”