CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) – One North Chesterfield woman and former emergency room technician was at ground zero in the days following 9/11. On the 20th anniversary of those tragic events, she recalled to 8News giving first aid to first responders who responded to the scene that Tuesday, running into the burning buildings to save lives after the terrorist attacks.
Kelli Mitchell was the lead ER technician for six years at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey in September 2001. The hospital was about an hour and 15 minutes from the Lincoln Tunnel.
Mitchell said every hospital within a 60 mile radius was put into hazmat mode following the attacks. Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital was in that radius and began treating hundreds of CIA and FBI agents. She said hospitals in New York were inundated with patients and couldn’t take anymore.
“It was hard to form words as to what you were seeing,” she said.
Early Friday morning around 3 a.m. on September 14, Mitchell got in the car with three nurses, an emergency medical technician and a physician and drove up to New York City to help.
Mitchell said her group was one of many in a call for first responders from as far as Virginia.
“It’s in our nature. So that’s what we did. We responded,” she told 8News in an interview on Saturday. “The tension was just so high and the techs were new and we weren’t sure if anything else would be coming or anything could’ve happened.”
The group was stationed four blocks back from ground zero in an elementary school. Mitchell said her first assignment was delivering first aid to first responders.
“It didn’t look like buildings, it looked like mountains, and that was as you approached, as you got closer, you saw that it was rubble,” Mitchell described what Manhattan looked like as she and her group approached the city.
Holding back tears, she described how dusty the area was, and how bad the eyes of first responders were packed with soot and dust from the wreckage. She delivered first aid to hundreds of them.
“Because of the toxins and the dust being so thick in the air, it was a lot people in eye wash. I mean, their eyes were just being caked and just red and irritated,” Mitchell said.
Her group from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital was stationed in the area from Friday, September 14 to Sunday, Sept. 16, going in shifts back and forth from the elementary school to ground zero delivering first aid.
“A lot of people needed a little bit of supplemental oxygen just to get cleared out, breathing treatments, cuts, bruises,” she said.
Mitchell told 8News many of the first responders she treated would immediately go back on scene to continue to respond after getting treatment from her. She remembers one police officer she treated in particular, who asked for a pair of fresh boots from the Javits Center, which was stocked full with supplies.
“He had the [worst] cuts on his feet. From just the shards and the metal just cut the bottom of his feet up,” she described. “And, you know, we didn’t want him to go back out there and we didn’t have a doctor available at the time, so, you know, I steri-stripped him the best that I could and wrapped him real good. He asked for a new pair of boots. I got him the boots, and he put them on and he went back out there.”
Mitchell would also make sure the first responders would eat and have a change of clothes before they continued their work.
“One thing I remember, and I think it was everybody’s reaction, it was just in awe of the devastation,” she said.
She said the area around ground zero looked ‘destitute’, with rubble scattered blocks from where the attacks happened.
“Five blocks back, it was tagged Brooks Brothers clothes on the ground. It was people’s mortgage statements from like Merrill Lynch on the ground. Paperwork that you could tell that was just sitting out on people’s desks. You know what I mean? Office chairs. Things blocks back,” Mitchell said.
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Mitchell reflects on the day after. “On 9/12, it didn’t matter who you were. There [were] no colors, there were no boundaries, there were no religions, there were no political parties, we were Americans,” she recalls.
A month later, in October 2001, Mitchell began wheezing, developed a fever and couldn’t catch her breath. She was diagnosed with toxic dust syndrome, undergoing pulmonary therapy, breathing treatments and using inhalers over the following year.
Mitchell was in the hospital from October 2001 to December 2001. She was released two days before Christmas.
She said she knows of so many first responders that are still dealing with the aftereffects of that day, including one woman who developed asthma and another who had a stroke in the years following.
“A lot of first responders are still suffering. A lot of them have cancer, so it was something, the buildings were so old that the fumes from the jet fuel, the dust, the old buildings that had legionnaires, the old buildings that had asbestos. We all breathed that stuff in for days,” she said.