Date September 9, 2021
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9/11 at 20: Ground zero doctor from Brown recalls ‘a singular event in history that brought us together’

Dr. Selim Suner led the Rhode Island Disaster Medical Assistance Team deployed to ground zero on Sept. 11, 2001, a group that included 14 volunteers from Brown’s medical school community.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. Selim Suner, a Brown professor of emergency medicine, surgery and engineering, was caring for his 6-month-old son at home before heading to a meeting at Rhode Island Hospital. His wife, also an emergency physician, was already at work. Suner was giving the baby a bottle and watching the news when images of a gaping, smoking hole in the north tower of the World Trade Center stopped him, like viewers across the globe, in his tracks. When a second Boeing 767 crashed into the South Tower, it became clear the events were no accident.

Suner knew exactly what he had to do.

One of 14 members of Brown’s medical school community who volunteered with the Rhode Island Disaster Medical Assistance Team, a response corps that provides medical services during natural or manmade disasters, Suner was at the time transitioning into the role of team commander. Leaving his son safely in the care of a sitter, he drove to the hospital, checked in with the DMAT executive officer, started calling team members and loading up their gear.

“We were preparing to leave for New York even before we heard from national headquarters,” Suner said.

The DMAT had been training together for years. “It’s a small state, so we knew all the people we were working with,” Suner said. They arrived in New York at 10 p.m. that evening, set up their modular tents — medical equipment, water purification systems, sleeping quarters — and prepared to treat patients.

Except: Nobody came.

As the sun rose over the city on Sept. 12, Suner said the team realized that everyone who made it out of the area alive was likely already at a hospital. The devastation downtown was “mind-boggling,” he said. There were dangerously deep trenches of concrete and rebar, mountains of rubble and glass, vast fields of debris and fires raging everywhere. Smoke hung low in the air; dust covered everything and everyone. Damaged, unstable buildings were on the verge of collapse. First responders were frantically trying to find survivors and getting hurt in the process. 

Fortunately, the DMAT was there to help. “Our mission changed,” Suner said. The Rhode Island rescuers started treating New York rescuers.

The DMAT took over a deli near ground zero, used the refrigerator to store medicine and supplies and set up a treatment facility in the lobby of an abandoned office building. They wanted to be visible to the crews working near the collapsed towers, Suner said.

First responders arrived with injuries or were transported by the New York City Fire Department. DMAT members bandaged wounds and treated severe burns. They addressed trauma from debris and injuries from falls; they tended to patients with pre-existing conditions like asthma and appendicitis. Respiratory issues were particularly problematic because of the poor air quality. 

Suner said that the team saw upwards of 345 patients per day, including construction workers, law enforcement, firefighters and military and medical personnel. Many first responders wouldn’t give up on finding lost colleagues, Suner said. “They’d come in and say, ‘Fix me up, give me an I.V., do whatever you need to do so I can get back in there.’”

The team tended to canine heroes, as well. Search-and-rescue dogs, like their handlers, were frequently injured at the scene of the collapse. One of the paramedics on the DMAT, Dr. James Harper, was also the head veterinarian at Brown and was able to treat and bandage the paws of the wounded animals as well as tend to injured humans.

“We were so lucky to have Jim with us during that mission,” Suner said of Harper, who retired from Brown in 2016 and died in 2019.

Between shifts, team members slept at a hotel uptown, before being transported by bus back to the disaster zone. As they traveled the city, they’d see New Yorkers lined up along the streets, waving flags and cheering for the rescue workers.

“I will never forget their support,” Suner said. “It makes me emotional to think about it even now.”

The deployment to ground zero brought the Rhode Island medical assistance team together and bonded them for life, Suner said. Being able to function together under such intense, confusing and challenging circumstances built immense trust among the group, a factor that aided them during subsequent missions.

“It was a singular event in history, and it brought us together and solidified the strength of our team,” Suner said. “We knew we could rely on each other for emotional as well as physical support, which is very important when we’re sent to unfamiliar locations.”

When the team was deployed to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to treat patients in the Superdome, for example, they were able to focus on their work despite hostile and threatening conditions. “It helped to know the other members of the team had your back,” Suner said.

Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks and 33 years after beginning his service with DMAT, Suner recently stepped away from the team to focus on other professional responsibilities. Others on site on Sept. 11 continue to answer the unexpected calls for deployment to emergencies near and far.

Suner says that each year, Sept. 11 marks a very personal anniversary for those who served at ground zero —there’s no official DMAT event to commemorate the anniversary. But every year, fellow team member and former Brown emergency resident Dr. David Marcozzi, who was the chief medical officer during the mission, sends Suner a photo of the two of them working at the site. “That’s become our tradition,” Suner said.

Suner said that when he sees a fellow DMAT team member on 9/11, they share an unspoken connection.

“You see someone who was there,” he said, “you look into their eyes, and you know what they’re thinking, because you’re thinking it, too.”