Worst-Case Scenario

Jack Moser's dedication to expanding his life-saving skills put him into a situation he could never have imagined.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Associate Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 12.2, March 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/tc/tc1202/worstscenario.htm

Jack Moser, ATC, has seen all kinds of injuries. That's to be expected for someone who has worked as an athletic trainer for 28 years and as a paramedic for 26. But one afternoon late last summer, Moser wasn't sure if he was prepared for the task before him.

That day was Sept. 11, 2001. Moser, Head Athletic Trainer for the Albany Conquest of Arenafootball2, was heading south out of New York's capital toward Manhattan as a member of a special, state-sponsored urban search-and-rescue response team. He and fellow squad members were on their way to search for survivors from the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history. As the squad headed south, Moser pictured the rubble of the collapsed World Trade Center towers.

"The first thought I had while riding down on the bus down was, 'What are we going to get into? Are we in over our heads?' We hadn't had any major responses like this, and obviously this is something more than we ever planned for," he remembers.

The New York State Regional Response Team was formed in the aftermath of the first World Trade Center attack. That 1993 bombing convinced state officials that they needed to establish special search-and-rescue squads trained for urban building collapses around New York state, not just in New York City. Moser's Albany-area response team was the first to be organized and trained.

Now, with a disaster greater than anyone had previously imagined, and with many of the city's own rescuers lost, the response team was needed. Moser's team had previously been in on a few isolated situations, including tornadoes and floods, a couple of cave rescues, and a collapsed house. But nothing prepared them for something like this.

"When we unloaded our trailers and got everything set up, they briefed us before we went into the pile. They said there could be six or seven thousand victims, that there could be even 10,000 victims," he says.

For work beyond his athletic training duties and a dedication to expanding his allied health care expertise to make himself more valuable both as an athletic trainer and a public servant, Moser has received the Training & Conditioning Above the Call Award.

On the morning of Sept. 11, Moser had first been summoned on his pager. All paramedics were asked to report to their stations. Then, the special search-and-rescue team members were told to report for the trip to New York City. As his bus approached the city under police escort, Moser recalls that everything was shut down, roads were closed, and cars were parked along the major routes in and out of the city. And as the team arrived in lower Manhattan and neared Ground Zero, Moser was struck by the gray concrete dust, several inches thick, that covered everything.

"Once you got to a certain point, it was like being in a black-and-white movie. There was no color," Moser says.

For all the trepidation over facing massive injuries, there really was very little actual treatment to be done upon the arrival of Moser's team. Earlier responders were still pulling survivors out of periphery wreckage, but at Ground Zero, rescues after the first day were few and far between.

Assigned to work under the Fire Department of New York's direction, the team was helping to take the place of rescue squads who'd responded within moments of the initial plane crashes, only to be lost when the twin 110-story towers collapsed. Moser noted the irony of their assignment, which added to the tragedy for him and his team members.

"What made it harder for us was a lot of the guys from the New York City rescue company had actually trained our team," Moser says. "A lot of guys from Rescue Company 3, the collapse team, had actually trained with us. We had gone down to New York City and trained on The Rock, which is what they call their training ground. We knew that a lot of those guys were in the pile."

So the team took quietly to their work. Moser recalls how eerie the scene was: Both the rescuers and the heavy-equipment operators removing massive amounts of debris were unusually silent, with none of the chit-chat such crews often engage in to break the tension and tedium. The work was grim, including that of Moser's team.

"Our basic responsibility was technical search and rescue," Moser says. "We had void search and rescue cameras, which are very small TV cameras that you could put on a pole up to 14 feet long. The construction workers would cut away some of the materials and we would go into an area, look and see what we could find, and if we were fortunate to find a body or a part, we would help to work and get that cleared out, then move on to the next area."

The job required climbing onto a pile of rubble several stories high, and working through the layer of dust. The destruction was unbelievable, Moser says, with few recognizable pieces other than the occasional twisted metal I-beams with the characteristic metal skin of the towers' exterior.

"You'd think that in two 110-story office buildings you're going to find desks, filing cabinets, or computers," Moser says. "Nothing. There was nothing. Nobody seems able to explain where everything was, other than it was just so compressed and pulverized from the mass of the implosion that it was gone."

At one point, there was an opening of hope, only to be slammed shut by a gruesome, disappointing scene. Moser and his unit had been following a void a few stories down, which ended up in one of the parking garages. "We were coming back up and we were still under this massive pile, and we found one of the ladder trucks that had been crushed. It was almost flattened, and the fireman I was with said to check underneath, because a lot of the guys will bail underneath the trucks since they usually hold up fairly well. I looked under, and there were three guys lying under the truck."

The firefighters hadn't made it.

"We could see their turnout gear and their boots and read the numbers off their jackets," Moser says. "The rest of them were buried in the concrete dust underneath the truck. And on top of the truck there were probably four stories of rubble."

Moser spent seven days at the site, working 12-hour shifts with half-hour or hour breaks, and sleeping wherever possible. Later, he went back for another three-day tour of duty.

Moser's involvement in Sept. 11 reflects his approach to his multi-faceted career. He entered athletic training early, when a non-sports hand injury kept him from playing junior varsity high school basketball one year. The coach suggested that Moser send away for a student athletic training kit as a way of staying involved in the team.

Moser, now 50, notes that it was an era when few high schools had professional athletic trainers. He studied athletic training at the State University of New York College at Brockport, completed an athletic training internship, took the certification exam in 1973, and went to work as a teacher-athletic trainer in the Troy, N.Y., school district. Now, Moser teaches full-time and is a full-time athletic trainer with the Conquest in its spring and summer season. Moser is also a part-time paramedic with the Town of Colonie Department of Emergency Medical Services and a volunteer firefighter.

He's also worked with other area professional soccer and basketball teams, including the Albany Patroons of the former Continental Basketball Association, once coached by Phil Jackson, now the Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach.

"Jack was one of the original paramedics in the Albany area," says Ron Baker, Deputy Chief of Colonie's EMS Department. "I think there are five of us left working in the system."

Baker says that Moser's two health careers often merge. "In terms of the bone and joint injuries, he has an advantage over other paramedics because he has that long history of being an athletic trainer," Baker says. "He obviously knows more about knees and knee injuries than any of us do."

Moser finds that his two careers often complement each other. "You'll see a dislocated hip on a football player, for example. The mechanism is different, but you'll see the same thing in a car accident. It's just a lot easier to handle the injury on the field rather than having to extricate the patient from the car first," Moser says.

In one case, Moser was working as an athletic trainer at a national Olympic-style sports festival, when a gymnast attempting a vault missed a high-speed take-off and slammed chest-first into the horse. "That was a situation similar to someone hitting a steering wheel in a car accident," Moser says. "From seeing all the major injuries I see in emergency medicine, if I get a bad injury, I feel very comfortable handling it. I say, 'Well, this is no different than what I've seen in the big car wreck.'"

As a result of his experiences, Moser strongly suggests that his Arena Football athletic-training interns take EMT classes. "Right now, you're required for certification to have a CPR card and a basic first aid card, but an EMT class, I think, is a really good background." Paramedics' training goes further than EMTs', allowing them to perform procedures such as administering first-line cardiac medications, certain narcotics, analgesics, sedatives, intubation, and IV's, Moser adds. But even Moser couldn't envision where his paramedic training would take him on Sept. 11.