Rebuilding New York: Women at Ground Zero

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–Before Sept. 11, Emergency Medical Service paramedic Tracy Mulqueen used to watch television to escape from the daily fare of pain and suffering and from memories of her helping efforts that sometimes failed. A show about New York EMS workers and firefighters, "Third Watch," used to be a favorite, but now that it incorporates episodes about the World Trade Center attack, she can no longer bear to watch.

"They are too realistic," she says looking at the broken skyline, missing the twin towers, from the eighth floor office of medical affairs of the New York Fire Department in Brooklyn. She once had a breathtaking view of the towers.

Like most New Yorkers that morning, when the first hijacked airliner struck the World Trade Center, the 32-year-old paramedic was doing something mundane: She was cooking bacon in the office kitchen and couldn’t immediately grasp what was happening.

"I heard people screaming and I heard something about flying. All I could think of was a bird had gotten loose in the building," Mulqueen recalls. "I had no clue."

After the second plane crashed, she ran for oxygen tanks, first aid kits, gauze masks, and headed out from the headquarters at 9 Metrotech Plaza. Adrenaline was pounding in her temples and Mulqueen says she lost time while getting out of Brooklyn and heading across the Manhattan Bridge.

By Chance, Delays, She Escaped Being Buried Alive

"My memory of leaving the office, getting the ambulance and heading downtown is blurred. I know that on the way to pick up the ambulance at the base of the Manhattan Bridge, I jumped out of my co-worker’s car to direct traffic that wasn’t letting us through. I would jump out and scream ‘stop’ and then get back into the car."

The ambulance radio did not pickup news broadcasts, so when they went over the bridge, she and the three other emergency medical technicians were stunned by the mass confusion as people were running for their lives from the billowing clouds of dark smoke and sooty air.

The mass confusion, disorientation, heavy smoke and soot would cost hundreds of police officers and firefighters their lives as they tried to get people out of the second tower and out of the area. Mulqueen knows she could have been there, trapped under the concrete rubble and burning iron.

As they pulled over to speak with a police officer directing traffic, a low rumble began to vibrate through the ground and suddenly the second tower toppled, sending a steady stream of black, smoky debris through the narrow downtown streets.

"We’ve got to get out of here!" yelled Mulqueen, as she and her crew began to run up Broadway. But as the smoke thickened and the roar became deafening, her partner Jimmy Murphy jumped back into the ambulance, picking up Mulqueen and two other crewmembers. They drove north to Warren Street and Broadway, soon flooded by the crowds of frightened, dazed people covered in ash and soot.

Few Survivors Meant Little Work for EMS, Less for Doctors

Mulqueen started handing out oxygen masks and administering oxygen from a small tank, letting the stunned victims breathe in briefly before they continued their journey further north, away from the fire. She also began to clean and bandage wounds. Slowly, she realized that there were few seriously wounded patients and those who escaped had only minor injuries to treat.

Where were the victims? Who had survived?

Mulqueen deduced almost immediately that death toll would be huge–and that the survival rate would be minimal.

"The temperatures were so hot down there. The bottom layers were flooded. There were so many things working against anyone getting out."

And thousands of pounds of steel and concrete plunging downward and flattening everything in its way.

Yet she worked on, helping people with chest pains to breath and cleaning up shrapnel-type splinters that had lodged in some people’s skin.

"There was a lot of fear there, people were so frightened they couldn’t breathe," she says.

Her crew and other EMTs helped doctors set up triage centers for survivors that never showed up and morgues for bodies that had been reduced to ash.

The white cotton cots remained empty and the body bags lay slack on the ground. The lack of patients frustrated many doctors who were accustomed to victims being brought straight into their care from emergency scenes. Mulqueen says that EMTs and paramedics were better prepared, having seen worst-case scenarios when working the city streets in emergencies.

Doctors Stood Around, Frustrated at Lack of Patients

"In the next few days we were dealing with physicians who didn’t understand there were no patients to treat," she says, brushing a few loose strands of her dark hair toward the ponytail that runs down her back. "The doctors wanted something to do, and there was a lot of standing around, other than treating the rescue workers who were on-site," she says.

As the days passed with mounting sadness as the workers realized there would be few heroic rescues.

Tracy MulqueenIn many ways Mulqueen was suited for the high-energy and demanding world of emergency medicine.

As a child, growing up in Queens and upper Putnam County, Mulqueen was attracted to high-adrenaline activities. She was a diving and swimming champion who loved to dive off the high boards and face fierce competition in her swim meets. In addition, she was attracted to theater, acting and the limelight.

"I thought I’d be famous," she says with a slightly nervous laugh and in fact she received a taste of fame when she was chosen to be an extra last year in "Fifteen Minutes," a movie starring Ed Burns and Robert De Niro.

Her roots lay in the arts; she studied theater at Stonybrook University on Long Island. By her senior year, however, her interest waned and she completed a three-month emergency medical service course. She also earned her paramedic certification from Westchester Community College in 1993.

Paramedic Knows Car Wrecks, Domestic Violence, Gun Shots

"I’d done volunteer work with the Putnam County Fire Department and emergency volunteer services; it was something I had always enjoyed," she says. The excitement of working in some of New York City’s toughest neighborhoods was a big pull.

"I loved the adrenaline rush of having to react in high-stake situations. One of my first nights in training, I was assisting a victim of a brutal stabbing up in the Bronx. This man was bleeding all over the place, and we had to stabilize him. I saw all of the blood everywhere and thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ but I loved it," she says.

Mulqueen dealt with victims of domestic violence in Harlem and the Bronx, she attended to the mentally and criminally insane at Bellevue Hospital, and she was often first on the scene of terrible car accidents and fires.

In contrast to the type of excitement her job had offered her, her life before Sept. 11 had become positively calm. A veteran of eight years in emergency medicine, Mulqueen ordinarily works in the fire department’s office of medical affairs as the advance life support special assistant, processing quality assurance claims. She also monitors public affairs and reviews cases of quality assurance with the New York City Department of Health.

And she and her husband of two years, Paul, live in Putnam County where they are renovating, painting and installing tile in their new house.

Insomnia, Overeating, the Symptoms of Stress

Mulqueen, like many others in the city’s uniformed forces, was pulled off the disaster site and told to return to normal duty. At first she was resentful, but now she’s settled back into her job. And now the mourning has begun.

She has attended the funerals of seven other members of the fire department, including its beloved chaplain.

"We lost two paramedics, and six voluntary medics. The second one, Carlos, his memorial was last Saturday … at this point it’s so draining," she says.

She is not sleeping and she overeats–symptoms of stress. "The first week I was doing so much walking and work that I lost weight, but it didn’t take long to pack it back on. It was the stress. Now, I’m on a diet," she says with a laugh, glancing down at a slightly expanding midriff in a tight navy blue uniform.

Mulqueen has an interview in a week for a promotion to lieutenant, and that would put her back in the field, and she is considering whether to pursue a degree in medicine. She’s grateful to have the chance for a future, something many of her colleagues lost when their lives ended on Sept. 11.

"It was so random," she says, surveying her office floor. "I could have been under that second tower. It just came down to which way you ran."

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Maya Dollarhide is a free-lance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has written for the Daily News,, and New York magazine. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.