Ground zero responders remember 9/11

An oral history project records the memories of responders and documents history by the people who lived it

On 9/11, Dr. Benjamin Luft prepared Stony Brook University Medical Center on Long Island for the massive number of casualties he expected to overwhelm the emergency room. But none came through the door that day, so few had survived.

As it turned out Dr. Luft's casualties were coming, but they would arrive much later. Although nearly 3,000 people were killed at the World Trade Center, 70,000 others responded to Ground Zero and worked for months amid toxic smoke and dust.

Dr. Luft helped start a clinic to treat the chronic illnesses and psychological trauma suffered by the 9/11 responders. Over time, Luft discovered something that he never expected - he began to hear their stories, honest, raw, irreplaceable stories. And almost two years ago, he began to record the definitive history of Ground Zero - remembering 9/11 in the words of the people who lived it.

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Eyewitness: Interviews with 9/11 responders

"The problem that came up was that our society began to look at the responders in terms of their disease," Dr. Luft told correspondent Scott Pelley. "They became an issue in terms of their liability. And my feeling was that, that's not who the responders were."

Dr. Luft said that he wanted to "find out who they are as human beings, what their motivation was, what values they had, what sacrifices they made, how they were able to renew themselves."

He told Pelley that it was like "taking a civics class as to what is important about being a citizen. What is important about being a human being? What is important to being an American?"

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Stacey Goodman, a suburban Suffolk County police detective, is one of the voices Luft recorded in what is now called the World Trade Center Oral History Project. Goodman worked at the makeshift morgue.

"We took in all the bodies. You know? Saying, 'I'm sorry for your loss' was very difficult, because that almost got to be like rote, you know?" Goodman said.

"At one point, this senior, I think, he was a retired fireman," Goodman continued, holding back tears. "He comes in. His hands are cupped. And he's got bones in his hands. And he goes up to the medical examiner and he puts the bones in front of him and he goes, 'This is my son.' What do you say to that?"

No one could possibly know 9/11 the way these responders do. "60 Minutes" asked several of the people who gave testimony to Dr. Luft's project to give a sense of what they went through.

Carol Paukner was a cop on the scene before the towers fell. She said that the debris and people rushing out made it difficult for her to get to Tower One, so she positioned herself at the base of Tower Two.

"This big, brawly FBI guy had his shield around his neck. And, you know, I looked up at him and he's telling, there was about six officers there with me, and he's like, 'If you want to live, you, you might as well leave now.' He said, 'We're all gonna die,'" Paukner recalled.

"And I'm like, 'I can't, we can't leave. I'm, I'm not leaving.' And the officers that I were there with, 'We're not leaving either.' And we continued to evacuate and do our jobs, but, you know, we were all like, 'Wow, we're gonna die,'" she said.

Extra: Death all around

Paukner was trapped when the first tower collapsed, but she was able to pull herself out of the wreckage.

So few were saved, but Nassau County Long Island Emergency Services Unit police sergeant Richard Doerler helped pull out one, rare survivor - a fellow cop named John McLoughlin.

Doerler said that McLoughlin was given morphine because "the plan was that if we couldn't extricate him, they were gonna cut his legs off."

"John screamed in pain while we pulled him initially," Doerler said. "So, we let him rest. And, we simultaneously pulled again and we broke him free. And, pulled him out."

Benjamin Luft is a medical doctor who volunteered to help create a clinic for the 9/11 responders at Stony Brook University Medical Center, part of the State University of New York.

More than 6,000 responders enrolled in his World Trade Center Health Program. One study shows that nearly a third of those who worked at Ground Zero have asthma, 42 percent suffer with sinusitis, nearly 40 percent have gastro esophageal reflux disease, known as GERD, and many have reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, that patients simply call "RADS."

Luft listened to their stories in the examining room for eight years when he realized that his patients were the authors of one of the most dramatic chapters of American history.

With his own money, a few donations and a small, mostly volunteer staff, Luft started the interview process - so far he has recorded 137 testimonies.

Produced by Rebecca Peterson

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