When Gail Cebular first heard that a plane had hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, she, like so many others, never imagined that it was a terrorist attack.
“My first reaction was it was a small private plane unfamiliar with the area, maybe had some problems with the engines,” said Cebular, then-chief of the Fair Lawn Volunteer Ambulance Corps. “And then I thought, well, ‘Stupid jerk. Didn’t they see where they were going?’”
Cebular went to her office’s lunch room, turned on the television and started watching the news coverage with the rest of her Altherm, Inc. co-workers.
Together, they looked on in horror as hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 plunged into Tower 2.
“Everybody was devastated, we just couldn’t begin to fathom what had really happened,” she remembered.
That’s when Cebular’s instincts took over and she sprang into action.
“I called our police department and I told them, if the city calls for help, they should call me,” she said, aware that Fair Lawn had mutual aid agreements at the county and state level that could extend all the way to New York City, in extreme emergencies.
Within 20 minutes, the police called her back asking for manpower. Cebular instructed them to page all ambulance corps members and tell them to meet at headquarters.
“I didn’t even think twice about walking out of my office, or the consequences it might have on my job,” she said. “I just got up and left.”
The crew that assembled that day, about a dozen strong, was dispatched with two of its three ambulances to Liberty State Park in Jersey City.
“It was a really strange feeling coming down the New Jersey Turnpike when it was closed,” Cebular remembered. “Going through the toll booths with nobody in them. The sign says, ‘New York City - Closed.’”
One of the first emergency crews to arrive, FLVAC was paired with a group of doctors who had been pulled that morning from a national medical conference in Secaucus and bused to Liberty State Park.
Cebular said they were assigned to treat people being ferried from lower Manhattan, as part of a plan designed to relieve overburdened New York City hospitals.
As evacuees started arriving by ferry, however, it soon became clear that few required medical attention. Most were just covered in dust, Cebular remembered.
“The people just never came,” she said. “The victims just never came. All those people that were there, basically, perished.”
The crew worked in Jersey City until about midnight on Sept. 11, before returning home.
But they’d be back.
Dispatched to New York City the next two days, FLVAC assisted any way possible, while waiting to treat any injured victims who were discovered.
“The first day I don’t think was as bad as the second day,” Cebular said. “We were on this side of the river. We didn’t really see what was going on. Everybody was there waiting, we were all talking. There were hundreds of people there and we were just hoping somebody would need our help.
“The second day,” she continued, “our group was smaller. We went over to New York. That was intense. That was really intense. Just seeing it first hand.”
Cebular said the scene near Ground Zero looked like something straight out of a movie set, with police cars turned over, fire trucks crushed and papers and photographs strewn about the streets.
As time passed, however, and survivors were not found, external support teams like FLVAC were called off.
Cebular said the memories still remain fresh in her mind. It’s one of only three moments in history that she can remember exactly where she was when she heard the news. The other two were John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the death of Elvis Presley.
“To this day, it seems like it just happened yesterday and the emotions are there,” she said. “It’s difficult to watch the events on TV, just the replays of it, it’s hard. It’s hard.”
Afterward, the Ambulance Corps discussed the possibility of speaking with counselors about their experiences, but ultimately decided it wasn’t necessary. They chose instead to speak about their experiences amongst themselves, and continue to do so to this day.
“We talk all the time,” Cebular said. “Maybe not so much throughout the year, but when the time comes around, we always talk about it. “
Sunday night was one of those times.
Ambulance Corps members, who return every year to pay their respects and attend the 9/11 Tribute in Lights from Liberty State Park, talked about that day the entire night, Cebular said.
They even traveled down exactly as they had 10 years ago – with Aaron Haber driving and Cebular in the passenger seat – reminiscing about their experiences.
“What we were doing, where we all were, what took place. It’s so fresh in our minds,” Cebular said.
She said her niece had reservations about her attending the opening of the Empty Sky Memorial Sunday because of ongoing terror threats. But Cebular said that like on 9/11, she had no fear.
“Either I go there to visit and pay my respects or I’m going to be there anyway to work,” she said she told her niece. “If I’m there and something happens, well it happens. I’m not going to live my life in fear.”