Answering the Call on 9-11
Answering the Call on 9-11

In 1966, an elderly man collapsed in his synagogue in Brooklyn, New York. Friends immediately called an ambulance, but the man died before it arrived. Herschel Weber witnessed the tragedy and promised that another one like it would never happen again. He bought an oxygen tank, and, soon after, he used it to save someone's life. Herschel's commitment to life-saving grew into Hatzalah— Hebrew for rescue— the largest private volunteer ambulance corps in the world.

We talked to a Hatzalah volunteer who preferred to remain anonymous. "We don't want people who are in it for the glory or the excitement. This is about helping people and saving lives," he told Baba.

BABA: Were you involved in the rescue effort at the World Trade Center (WTC) on September 11?

HATZALAH MEMBER: Yes. I found out about the attack from my son, who is also a Hatzalah volunteer. He called me to say that he saw the plane hit the building. Within moments the Hatzalah dispatcher was on the radio telling all neighborhood ambulances to go help.

BABA: Is it true that a Hatzalah ambulance was first on the scene?

HATZALAH MEMBER: Yes. When the WTC was hit, the 9-1-1 system went down. Because our radio tower is on another building, we were not affected by the communications breakdown. Three minutes after our dispatcher announced that the tower had been hit, Hatzalah ambulances were rushing to the scene. We had 185 volunteers and 18 ambulances at Ground Zero that day.

BABA: What did you do when you arrived at the WTC?

HATZALAH MEMBER: When my ambulance arrived, the northern tower was engulfed in flames. People were running for their lives. Some had been hit by falling debris, and they had open wounds or broken limbs. One person suffered a heart attack. We treated hundreds of people on the scene and took many to the hospital.

BABA: Were you afraid you might die rescuing others?

HATZALAH MEMBER: Yes. The first tower came down while we were near it. A plume of smoke swallowed us, and I thought we were going to die. We were covered in debris and dust, and we couldn't see anything. One of our members was hit by scorching gas, and he was screaming that he was on fire. Two other Hatzalah volunteers were trapped under the debris. I kept yelling into the radio, "Don't worry, we'll find you!"

BABA: What did you do next?

HATZALAH MEMBER: I wasn't sure if I should get under the ambulance or jump into it. I decided it was best to get inside the ambulance with the injured that we had already loaded. We couldn't drive because the smoke was too thick. When the smoke finally cleared, we started treating those in the ambulance.

BABA: Hundreds of rescuers were killed during the tragedy. Were any Hatzalah volunteers among them?

HATZALAH MEMBER: At one point, 40 Hatzalah members were unaccounted for. I could hear the panic in the voices over the radio as we responded to our dispatcher's roll call. How would we tell the families of the missing that their loved ones were gone? But God performed miracles for us and we ultimately found everyone. At the end of the night, the ambulance chief of the Emergency Medical System in New York City turned to me and asked how many members we lost. I reported that one guy broke his leg, one had 60 stitches in his head, one was temporarily blinded, and others had minor injuries. He persisted, "How many died?" When I told him no one died, he responded, "You have a God. I should stay with you so I'll be safe."


Zoom in on Hatzalah
There are 850 Hatzalah volunteers working in 14 communities throughout New York City. They respond to approximately 70,000 emergencies each year. In addition to New York, Hatzalah has branches in Montreal, Switzerland, California, and Israel. Hatzalah EMTs (emergency medical technicians) are well trained. Each volunteer is required to take a 165-hour course that is taught by a doctor or a paramedic. Although Hatzalah is a Jewish rescue corps, it treats anyone in need.