Paul Vega remembers exactly what he was doing when the first plane struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center as if it were yesterday. Except it was 19 years ago this month.
Vegas was driving an ambulance, with a patient he picked up a few minutes earlier, to Jersey City Medical Center (JCMC), where he was employed as an EMT.
He recalls seeing smoke billowing from the tower, but his two-way radio wasn’t working, and he had no idea what had happened. Like many people in the initial moments after the tower was struck, Vega thought it was an accident – a small plane or news helicopter that had collided with the building.
He was in the Emergency Department at the hospital when the second plane struck the South Tower. He recalls watching it unfold live on television.
The rest of the day was a blur. He covered Jersey City and picked up dozens of people over the course of the day and brought them to JCMC’s Emergency Department.
“The ER was just chaotic,” he said. “There were stretchers everywhere in the hallways.”
By the end of the day, JCMC had treated more than 2,000 patients who were brought across the Hudson River from Lower Manhattan and treated at Jersey City’s waterfront. Of those patients, more than 200 were transported to the hospital.
They also lost one of their own — EMT Tour Chief David Lemagne.
“It was a day that none of us will ever forget,” said Michael Prilutsky, President and CEO of Jersey City Medical Center. “Jersey City Medical Center rose to the tremendous challenge then and will continue to surpass many trials. We have the most skilled, dedicated and resilient healthcare heroes ready to serve our community.”
JCMC is a state-designated Regional Trauma Center with more than 16,000 admissions and 90,000 Emergency Department visits annually. The hospital provides Advanced Life Support for Hudson County, runs 911 Medical Call Screening for Hudson County and operates one of the busiest EMS systems in the state.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created another harrowing experience for EMS workers, though it has been very different from the September 11 attacks. The peak of the pandemic unfolded over several weeks, rather than in an intense few hours.
Vega said attending to patients who stopped breathing before he could get them to the hospital took its toll.
“There were times that myself and my colleagues, when we were done with our shift, we would sit in the car and just lay out some tears,” Vega said. “That way, when we got home to our loved ones, they wouldn’t see us with that appearance.”
Vega didn’t originally set out to be an Emergency Medical Technician. But that changed one day when he saw someone performing CPR on a man who had passed out. After witnessing the life-saving episode, he decided to become certified in CPR. He was encouraged by family members, many of whom were in the medical profession, to become an EMT.
He started in Passaic as a volunteer and applied for the job at JCMC in 1993, shortly before the February 26 bombing in the garage of the World Trade Center, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000.
Since then, he has witnessed many changes in his profession as well as the growth of the department and Jersey City.
“I don’t plan to retire anytime soon because I’m passionate about my job,” said the 56-year old Vega. “I love serving the community and helping others in need. Hudson County is very special to me; the people are so giving. There are people who run away from emergency situations and those, like me, who run towards them, to render aid and preserve life.”