‘On 9/11 there was a sense of unity in the country. We’ve taken a collective step back.’

A surgeon who volunteered at Ground Zero recalls the aftermath.

The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn behind the Empire State Building, Sept. 11, 2001, in New York. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler, File)

(RNS) — On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Navinder Singh Nijher, then a general surgery resident at a Brooklyn hospital, was in a meeting when one of his colleagues witnessed an airplane flying dangerously close to the buildings across the East River in lower Manhattan. Then it flew into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

The colleague shouted, and all of the colleagues shifted their gaze to the smoke billowing from the building. They canceled their meeting and a group of them, including Nijher, went up to the roof of the hospital to get a better look. Streams of paper and other office debris headed toward them over the river.

“We were just standing up there, watching the smoke and the debris and the paper all around us, when suddenly, the second plane hit the World Trade Center. We were stunned. No one said anything. And then, all of a sudden, everyone’s pagers started going off. And that’s when I realized this was a mass casualty event. Being in general surgery meant that we would cover the trauma unit, which also meant that I would have a big role to play in the response efforts.”

Nijher and some of his more experienced colleagues rushed to another hospital closer to the Brooklyn Bridge, expecting to receive evacuations from south Manhattan, where the terrorist attacks had just taken place. He was there when first one, then the other tower collapsed. The doctors gathered there realized the casualty count would be even worse than they had anticipated. They decided they couldn’t wait for survivors to come to them; they had to go to Ground Zero to save whatever lives they could.

Navinder Singh Nijher as a young doctor. Courtesy photo

Navinder Singh Nijher as a young doctor. Courtesy photo

After volunteering to be part of the rescue team, Nijher called his wife, who was traveling in India, to tell her where he was going and admitted he had no idea if he would return. They said goodbye and exchanged “I love you”s. Then he climbed into an ambulance, along with a few other volunteers, and they drove over the bridge.

“It was surreal, because we were coming across Brooklyn Bridge, and it looked like one of those dinosaur films or zombie films, where everyone is running out of Manhattan in panic, and we’re in the one lane going into the city with police escorts.”

As those people fled for their own safety, Nijher was one of the few who drove into the heart of danger and uncertainty, seeking to help those who needed it most.

As the rescue team passed through the containment zone and set up their triage center near Ground Zero, Nijher looked up occasionally to see dust and debris everywhere. Survivors wandered around, dazed. At one point, Nijher looked up to see people running and screaming, “Run!”

“We just started running too, just in time to escape another building that collapsed just nearby. You just see this dust cloud come flying, like an explosion, all the way into the Hudson River.”

Undeterred, Nijher went back to his station to give medical attention to his survivors. At one point, he was approached by one of the lead first responders. A firefighter had been pinned during the rescue, and knowing Nijher’s group to be surgeons, thought they could help release the firefighter by amputating his leg.

Such a procedure, performed by residents with limited equipment and limited experience, would have been extremely risky, and fortunately they were able to unpin the firefighter without amputating his leg. But, Nijher recalled that in the dire scenario of the day, if it needed to be done, they would have figured out how to do it.

In the early afternoon, Nijher went back to Brooklyn, where he was on call at the hospital, and the next morning commuted back to his apartment in Manhattan, near the United Nations.

“Again, it was like an apocalyptic movie,” he recalled. “On my way home, I saw military guys on every street corner with machine guns, especially where I was. SWAT team trucks were everywhere. It was like I had gone from one world to another.”

He slept into the evening, and when he woke described what he had witnessed to his roommate that evening. As they talked, Nijher remembered that he had taken dozens of pictures at Ground Zero. As he headed out to get the film developed, his roommate, who had been watching the events unfold on the news all day, offered to join him.

“I don’t know what things are like out on the street and how people are going to react to you,” his roommate said.

That was the first moment that Nijher processed that people on the street might perceive him as a perpetrator of the terrorist attacks, rather than as one of its heroes.

It wasn’t long before this possibility would turn into reality. When they arrived at the store, Nijher approached the clerk and asked for his film to be developed. The clerk glared at him, and after a moment, responded curtly, “Well for you people, it’s $1,000.”

“I asked him what he meant by ‘you people’,” Nijher said. The clerk told him he could figure it out. “I was shocked, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘If only he’d seen what’s actually on this film, he might have a better understanding of who I was and what I had been doing.’”

It was an initial indication that his life would change rapidly. As he walked home with his roommate, that realization became sharper, as people along the way hurled slurs at him, including “Fuck you, Osama. Go back to your fucking country. We’re going to kill you.”

“It was then that I realized the story of my life had taken a major turn,” he said. “Within 24 hours, I went from nobody judging me or questioning why I was helping on Ground Zero — including policemen, firefighters and doctors — to walking down the street and people feeling hatred towards me and seeing me as the enemy.”

Navinder Singh Nijher. Courtesy photo

Navinder Singh Nijher. Courtesy photo

Nijher’s world changed entirely in a single day, and not just his. One day people all around him from different communities who had been seen as everyday Americans suddenly had to contend with the reality that they weren’t going to be seen that way anymore.

“It just goes to show that there’s so much deeper than what we see of people on the outside. Through my experience at Ground Zero and how people treated me after, I’ve learned how important it is to try and see the hero in everyone we meet.”

Nijher believes that the social fabric of the United States was strengthened in the years following the 2001 attacks, but he thinks the same fabric has weakened over the past several years. He is particularly concerned about the feeling of mistrust that hangs over a society of people who live together.

“The main thing I noticed after 9/11 is that there was a sense of unity in the country. This lasted for a number of years despite other conflicts that we were involved in as a country. In the past few years, I feel we have taken a collective step back and have gone back into our individual silos once again. So much of the progress that was made after 9/11 has been lost, and I hope we can change that momentum and begin creating that sense of unity again.”

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