By Dustin Brown
Only minutes before one of the Twin Towers toppled, four Middle Village Volunteer Ambulance Corps members planned to drive into the medical staging area underneath — a site that would soon be buried under the tumbling debris.
But their lives were saved by two men struggling to breathe.
After a frantic ride from Queens into Manhattan as it maneuvered through traffic by directing cars through a megaphone, the corps’ rig was only two blocks from what would shortly be known as Ground Zero when two men flagged it down for help.
“There were people on the sidewalk that had a problem,” said Joseph Magnus, a charter member of the corps who rode the rig the morning of Sept. 11. “They were running from the scene and having difficulty breathing.”
But less than 10 minutes after they stopped to provide oxygen, which the volunteers administered so rapidly they never learned where their patients came from, one of the towers began to collapse.
“All of a sudden I hear this big rumbling like a volcano erupting,” Magnus said. “I turn my back and I see the building — it just tilted and it’s coming down.”
Frantic to save his crew members, Magnus gave them the only command he could: run.
“At this point I yell to my crew, I said, ‘Guys, run for your life,’” Magnus said. “One of my crew members says, ‘What are we going to do with these people?’ We left them on the sidewalk.”
Magnus opened the rear of his ambulance to anyone capable of jumping in and nearly two dozen people crowded inside before another crew member pulled the vehicle out and drove as far from the destruction as possible — until traffic would not allow it to proceed any further.
Eight members of the ambulance corps — four in each rig — served three 24-hour tours in Manhattan in the days following the destruction of the World Trade Center, stopping only when it was clear their help was no longer needed.
The corps typically provides free medical transport to residents of Middle Village and the surrounding communities in addition to responding to area emergencies.
But at the World Trade Center, they were on call to provide medical service to survivors and the rescuers struggling to find them. Instead of treating survivors, however, they watched as workers extracted human remains from the rubble.
“You could not identify any part of that person,” Magnus said of one victim who was brought out. “The only thing I could identify was a finger with a yellow wedding band. That man or woman was married, and kids are involved. I got touched. Now I’m angry.”
But Magnus is simply thankful his rig stopped to treat those two men, the fate of whom he has never learned.
“If we were not flagged down to treat those people on the sidewalk, you would not be talking to me today,” Magnus said.
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.