Utah Surgeons Share WTC Experience

Through very different paths, two Utah surgeons, Drs. Ray Price and Steven Joyce, ended up volunteers in New York City after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Price, chairman of general surgery at LDS Hospital, flew into New York City for a conference on Saturday, Sept. 8. The two things he wanted to do while in New York were to attend the Michael Jackson concert and visit the World Trade Center.

Everyone in the city told Price he had no chance of getting a ticket to the Jackson concert, which made him all the more determined. Initial phone calls found tickets for more than $1,000. Too much, he thought. After several more calls, Price eventually ended up with a $98 ticket.

Price planned to visit the World Trade Center on Tuesday, but after Monday night’s concert, he chose to sleep in.

“I thank Michael Jackson for saving my life,” Price said.

That morning, Price watched the attacks outside his hotel. He immediately called the city and volunteered his assistance. After hurrying to the location specified by city officials, Price was told he was at the wrong spot. He and a few volunteers hopped into a car with the police and rushed down the bumpy city streets to the next site.

The runaround was repeated once more at a science museum that was ill-equipped for treating patients. Price eventually ended up at the proper rendezvous, an old train station converted to a makeshift emergency surgical center.

“We played ‘Starsky and Hutch’ all day,” said Price, referring to a 1970s television series where a pair of police detectives sped around in a sporty bright-red Ford Grand Torino.

Price said coordinating the hundreds of volunteers at the site was a big challenge. Long debates and reviews preceded fundamental tasks such as setting up triage. He and other surgeons felt unprepared handling this type of situation. “Surgeons at a disaster scene is a disaster itself,” Price surmised.

With very few patients brought in, Price and the others “sat and sat.” They watched in despair as the towers fell. “There wasn’t a lot of talking going on,” Price said.

Because there were no flights out of New York, Price eventually drove back to be with his family in Utah. Listening to the news on the radio during the trip back brought him to tears every 15 minutes.

Joyce, a clinical professor of surgery at University Hospital, was in a faculty meeting when he learned about the terrorist attacks. He immediately realized he would go to New York because he is a member of the Salt Lake Urban Search and Rescue Team, which was on call for national emergencies that day. Within 10 minutes, he found volunteers to cover his hospital shifts.

Joyce was the medical director for the Salt Lake City Fire Department when he was asked to volunteer for the rescue team in ’97. All he had to do was “ride along” when there is an emergency, he was told.

“I’ve learned to be a lot smarter” about accepting new roles, Joyce said.

Joyce and his team were ready for deployment by midnight. Waiting at the airport for a C-141 transporter to airlift them, the team learned their deployment was delayed because the Federal Emergency Management Agency chose a more experienced team for the first week after the disaster.

The 62 members of Joyce’s team, Task Force 1, arrived in New Jersey on Sept. 17 and set up their base of operation at Javitz Center, two miles from ground zero. Another team rotated with Task Force 1 in 12-hour shifts.

Because the team didn’t find any survivors in the rubble, Joyce didn’t prepare anyone for surgery. Among the major injuries he treated were low-level carbon monoxide exposures, back strains, contusions and heat exhaustions.

Although everyone wore respirators, smoke and debris inhalation was common because workers had to remove their masks to talk.

“We were constantly treating airway irritations,” Joyce said.

Joyce’s days at the site began daily at 5 a.m. After two hours of briefing from other teams of volunteers and government agencies, Joyce started his 12-hour shift of searching the rubble with his team.

“A lot of the time, things weren’t happening,” Joyce said, and he performed a variety of tasks such as removing debris, recovery of remains and lots of paperwork. Because he had some experience in veterinarian medicine, he even helped treat some of the rescue dogs.

“Everything is pulverized,” Joyce said. “There really isn’t much left?It’s very sobering. There’s always the smell of acrid smoke, sometimes the smell of death.”

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