BY ELLYN. COUVILLION
Advocate staff reporter
September 21, 2012
Dr. Jeffrey Dongieux’s role as a volunteer in the hours after the World Trade Center in New York City was destroyed on Sept. 11, 2001, unfolded in an urgent yet not unfamiliar way.
A doctor, after all, is prepared for medical emergencies.
But the landscape he was in and the scenes he saw following the terrorist attacks had a surreal quality, like something in a bad dream.
As Dongieux, then a fourth-year surgical resident at New York University Medical Center, made his way to his apartment from the teaching hospital at one point, he remembers the streets were empty, silent.
“There were no cars. You could walk right down Second Avenue,” said Dongieux, 42, now an oral surgeon with a private practice in Kenner. He also sees patients with the Louisiana Dental Center, which has several locations in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas.
On the evening of Sept. 11, 2001, as Dongieux neared the site of the World Trade Center attack, he saw a large object in the street and realized he was looking at a tire from one of the planes the terrorists had hijacked.
It lay in the road along with part of the plane’s landing gear, he said.
Closer to the area where the Twin Towers had burned and fallen, Dongieux walked with a guide, sometimes over steel planks thrown down by the collapse of the buildings that were serving as temporary walkways.
“Be real careful where you’re walking,” his guide said.
When Dongieux (pronounced “don jay”) looked beyond the planks, he saw a multi-story, smoking cavern — the devastated floors of parking spaces below the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
“The steel planks were so hot, they melted the bottoms of my shoes,” he said.
Dongieux has carefully kept some of the items issued to him for his volunteer work in the aftermath of 9/11 in display cases in his office.
“I think it’s our generation’s Pearl Harbor,” he said.
Maybe in the future, the mementos he’s kept from 9/11 will help his children and grandchildren better understand what happened that day, Dongieux said.
More than 3,000 people in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Pennsylvania died on Sept. 11, 2001, when militants from an Islamic extremist group hijacked four planes: two were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center; one was flown into the Pentagon, and one crashed in a Pennsylvania field after passengers, alerted by then to the attacks elsewhere, fought back.
Dongieux, who grew up in New Orleans, did his specialty training in oral and maxillofacial surgery for four years at New York University Medical Center, after receiving his doctor of dental surgery degree from the LSU School of Dentistry.
He was one of two chief residents at Bellevue Hospital, the public, teaching hospital for New York University, in 2001.
On the morning of the day of the terrorist attacks, Dongieux was at the New York University dental school, setting up cases, when the dental program director rushed in and said they should get over to nearby Bellevue, “because a plane had hit the tower.”
At Bellevue’s emergency room, Dongieux and other medical residents wrote on the scrubs they were wearing what level of training they were at and their specialty, so they could be assigned to different stations.
Dongieux, who is trained in oral and facial surgery and anesthesia, was stationed in the suture room, ready to stitch wounds. He and the other medical staff at that point didn’t understand the magnitude of what had happened, he said.
In the first hour, most of the patients coming to the emergency room were burn victims, people who had been waiting for an elevator in the lobby of one of the Twin Towers, when a fireball flamed down the elevator shaft and blew out the elevator doors, Dongieux said.
The staff learned that a triage center had been set up near the World Trade Center, and injured people were being transported to several hospitals, based on need, some nearer to the devastation than Bellevue.
“After the first hour to two hours, we weren’t getting a lot of patients,” Dongieux said.
Because of the nature of the catastrophic damages and collapse of the towers, only a handful of people survived the towers’ fall.
Sitting and waiting in the ambulance bays at Bellevue, Dongieux could see and hear F-15 fighter jets “100 feet off the ground, screaming by, protecting the city ... They were over the East River.”
“I remember there was a radio transmission, and one of the policemen saying, ‘One of the towers came down,’ ” Dongieux said.
Dongieux asked, “What do you mean? How could it fall? Is it leaning?”
“No, it just collapsed,” the police officer said.
By 4 p.m. or 5 p.m., Dongieux was told he could go home.
His apartment was a few blocks away, and it was then Dongieux walked home through the eerily still streets of Manhattan.
Later that evening, a friend of his, a fellow medical resident, called and asked Dongieux to come to what came to be called ground zero, the site of the attack.
“They were setting up trauma bays, with gurneys and IV fluid” in a hotel across the street from where the World Trade Center had been, Dongieux said.
He found a ride there on an NYU Medical Center van that got him close to the site.
“It was just kind of chaos. There was a police presence there, only (letting) medical people in,” he said.
“Everything was covered in dust, there was paper on the ground and soot a couple of inches deep,” Dongieux said.
As Dongieux walked closer to ground zero and showed his medical I.D., a hazardous materials worker met him, handed him a mask, and walked with him — at some points over the planks of steel next to the drop into the below-ground ruins of the Twin Towers — to a hotel-turned-trauma center.
“The main door was blown out, the windows were blown out. It looked like a war zone,” Dongieux said.
“There were not any big pieces of debris. You would think there was a desk or a chair. There wasn’t,” he said of the area at ground zero.
“About the biggest thing I saw was loose-leaf paper. Everything was destroyed,” Dongieux said.
Through the night, Dongieux and other health care professionals worked in an area at the back of the hotel lobby, where two rows of chairs, set back to back, were lined up to receive patients.
It was a water irrigation station where medical workers rinsed the eyes of firefighters who had to come in repeatedly, practically blinded by the soot and dust they were working in, Dongieux said.
The tubing of IV bags there was fitted with special connections that acted like spigots.
Dongieux worked at the water irrigation station until around 3 a.m., then made his way back to Bellevue Hospital, hitching a ride on an ambulance to the triage center, then riding with a police officer to Bellevue, he said.
“I had to get back to Bellevue to round on patients,” Dongieux said.
In the days that followed, Dongieux would walk into Bellevue for his regular hospital duties, alongside what came to be known as the Wall of Prayer, a plywood wall lining a construction area for a future expansion of the hospital.
There, people brought pictures and identifying information about missing loved ones, he said.
About a week after the attack, Dongieux was called to return to ground zero to examine a firefighter who had been struck in the face by a piece of steel.
The site had become more organized and seemed calmer with a more formal process for entry overseen by the National Guard, Dongieux said.
By then, a nearby Academy Sports store had been turned into a supply depot, where such items as one-way filter face masks and socks and gloves were distributed to workers and volunteers, he said.
Dongieux met the injured firefighter he had been called to treat at a convenience store that had been turned into the triage center for the wounded.
The firefighters’ injury turned out not to be severe, and Dongieux advised him to get an X-ray, as a precaution, at a hospital when it was convenient.
And then, Dongieux, the fourth-year medical resident from Louisiana found himself in charge of the triage center, when the neurosurgeon there had to leave for an emergency case.
“You need to take over,” he told Dongieux.
Dongieux and a fellow resident who had come with him to ground zero stayed there through the night, then he passed off his duty to another doctor who came in the next morning.
“I don’t consider what I did a heroic thing,” Dongieux said. “I just happened to be in New York.”