By Kathianne Boniello
Queens’ volunteer ambulance corps normally acts as the cavalry, a backup for the army of city firefighters, police and emergency service workers who spend their lives keeping the borough safe.
But when the call went out for emergency personnel to respond to an attack on the World Trade Center Sept. 11, the support of the borough’s volunteer ambulance corps became critical to the rescue effort.
Volunteers from the Bayside and Little Neck-Douglaston ambulance corps rushed to help, providing medical assistance for rescue workers and civilians alike as the full impact of the terrorist attacks unfolded.
The two northeast Queens ambulance corps also maintained emergency services in the borough’s neighborhoods while the city’s attention turned to what is now Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.
When two hijacked commercial airliners crashed into the Twin Towers Sept. 11, thousands of people began to flee the area before the buildings eventually collapsed. With public transportation shut down in the immediate aftermath of the attack, many people walked north out of Manhattan, crossing bridges on foot to get out of the borough.
Thomas Heffernan, chief of the Bayside Volunteer Ambulance Corps, said his group responded to the urgent call for assistance within an hour after the World Trade Center attack.
“We were in a staging area in Brooklyn, transporting and rescuing people coming over the Brooklyn Bridge,” Heffernan said. “That was right after the explosion. We treated various injuries and many people with extreme psychological distress.”
The Bayside corps then sent volunteers to the World Trade Center.
The Little Neck-Douglaston Volunteer Ambulance Corps also sent a team to the attack site, President Stephanie Cordes said.
“They went in immediately,” she said of the Little Neck-Douglaston group. Cordes said her volunteers, some of whom also stayed behind to provide coverage for Queens, helped some of the rescue workers by giving them medical assistance.
Both ambulance corps were forced to change position at Ground Zero for fear of more buildings collapsing, Heffernan and Cordes said.
While the Little Neck-Douglaston Volunteer Ambulance Corps did not lose any equipment or major supplies, Cordes said, the Bayside Volunteer Ambulance Corps known as BVAC did, Heffernan said.
“We almost emptied out our supplies,” said Heffernan, who said the BVAC group gave the medical equipment in its truck to one of the triage centers established after the assault.
Describing Ground Zero after the attack, Heffernan said “it was like a nuclear winter.”
“It was hell on earth,” he said. “Everything had an orange glow from the fires and there was smoke. There was almost no sound — everything was totally absorbed.”
Heffernan said he was planning to award each member of BVAC who served at Ground Zero or helped the rescue effort special certificates in recognition of their work.
“I am extraordinarily proud of my members and the people of Bayside for their support of their city and country,” he said.
Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.