A generation has now reached adulthood without knowing what life was like before Sept. 11, 2001.
The United States of America changed that day, and perhaps no one in Tahlequah understands that better than Ralph Winburn.
Winburn was an emergency medical technician assigned to the Bronx, New York City division the day two American Airlines jetliners crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.
Winburn was the featured speaker at the Cherokee County Veterans Council Patriot Day ceremony Wednesday, commemorating the 12-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens lost their lives that day, and Winburn related his personal experience to those attending Wednesday’s ceremony.
“Sept. 11, 2001, was a regular day off for me,” said Winburn. “I was at home that morning, watching television and surfing the Internet, when I looked up and saw on the television smoke coming from Tower 1.”
Winburn said for NYC emergency personnel, it’s standard procedure in the case of a “multi-casualty incident” – one involving more than 100 casualties – to report for duty immediately.
“I lived in Queens at the time, but was assigned to the Bronx,” said Winburn. “I got what gear I could together and headed to Manhattan with others in two ambulances.”
The ideal route would have been to take overpasses, but they were closed at the time.
“The route we didn’t want to take, the underwater route, was our only option,” said Winburn. “So our crew and nine firefighters in two ambulance entered the Midtown Tunnel. We were the only vehicles on the road.”
Winburn said they applauded when they glimpsed daylight at the end of the tunnel, and when they’d exited the tunnel, they clapped.
“As we turned the corner and saw the smoke, we got quiet,” said Winburn. “At that point, we didn’t know both towers had collapsed.”
The crew made its way to Chelsea Pierce, where they set up makeshift triage and a sort of hospital, then went about evacuating the people in lower Manhattan.
“That took about 2-1/2 hours,” said Winburn. “Anyone who had not walked out of lower Manhattan in that time was presumed dead.”
The crew then waited for injured victims. None came.
“After 13 hours, we had a bit of triage, but mostly sifting to do,” said Winburn. “We sifted through clothing and body parts, separating service personnel from civilian.”
He was required to leave after 16 hours, and arrived home to find his wife, Polly, in tears at the kitchen table.
“She asked what we would do,” said Winburn. “I told her I took an oath and was sworn in to the Bronx, and would be here for the duration.”
Winburn said the remarkable aspect of the aftermath was the attitude of NYC natives.
“For months, the self-serving spirit of New Yorkers was lifted, and people were genuinely kind to each other,” said Winburn. “We all know, our country changed that day.”
Winburn took two life lessons away from the experience.
“The first is to never ever take the people in your life for granted,” he said. “The second is to appreciate the people in your community who work hard every single day to make a difference in other’s lives.”
Winburn went on to thank local firefighters, police, EMTs, veterans, nurses and teachers. He introduced his newly adopted son, who read the poem “Tomorrow Never Comes.”
“My life has never been the same since Sept. 11,” said Winburn. “I appreciate every person in my life. Let’s not forget, tomorrow is promised to no one.”
Several Oklahoma lawmakers made statements about the anniversary of the terrorist attacks, To read more, visit www.tahlequahTDP.com/on lineexclusives.