Published 12:00 am Saturday, September 3, 2011
By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — Even though Craig Chepke encountered cadavers as a first-year medical student at New York University, his real lesson in mortality came when two planes hit the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.
“It was the most terrifying and humbling day of my life,” Chepke said.
Now a psychiatrist at Rowan Regional Medical Center poised to become medical director of the hospital’s new geriatric behavioral unit, Chepke was 22 when hijackers crashed fully fueled passenger jets into the Twin Towers blocks from his dorm room.
The Ohio native who grew up in Charlotte and attended Duke University had been in medical school for one week.
On the morning of Sept. 11, Chepke was in anatomy lecture when someone said a plane had hit the World Trade Center. He thought it must have been an accident.
The students moved to anatomy lab, where they heard another plane had hit.
“That’s when we knew something was really wrong,” Chepke said.
They couldn’t access CNN on the computer in the lab, so they moved to a common room and turned on the TV. With millions of other horrified Americans, they watched the first tower fall.
NYU Medical Center and Bellvue Hospital were designated trauma centers, so even though Chepke and his classmates knew nothing about medicine, they threw on scrubs and went to Bellvue.
“We hadn’t done anything clinical whatsoever,” Chepke said. “But if nothing else, we thought we could be an extra pair of hands.”
They found dozens of doctors standing around, waiting for survivors who never arrived.
“We thought there would be hundreds of patients coming in,” he said.
Relatively few people were pulled alive from the rubble. And they went to trauma centers closer to Ground Zero.
Dismissed for the day, Chepke went to give blood, but the line was hundreds of people long. As he walked around NYU looking for another way to help, Chepke heard one terrifying rumor after another: The Washington Monument had fallen. The Empire State Building was next. He expected to see people with M16s taking over the streets of New York City and wondered if the city had been infiltrated from the shoreline.
He knew another plane had struck the Pentagon, and a fourth had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Airports across the country begin to close, and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani ordered an evacuation of Lower Manhattan.
For Chepke, fear set in.
Still before noon, he went back to his dorm room, where he could see the Empire State Building from his window. Any terrorist intent on destroying yet another American symbol by using a plane as a bomb would send debris into his room.
“I was so terrified, I hid behind the bed,” he said.
No attack came, and eventually Chepke joined others to watch news reports and finally got cellphone service to call his family in Charlotte.
“They’d been hysterical all morning,” he said.
The week went by in a blur of smoke, ash and grieving families. Chepke and other students wore masks for several days when they went outside, where they maneuvered through crowds of people looking for lost loved ones or coming to identify remains at the city medical examiner’s office and morgue, which was housed at NYU.
Relatives posted photos and flyers of missing family members along a wall that stretched for 40 or 50 feet. The city closed a street and set up trailers for storage and DNA analysis of human tissue found at Ground Zero.
The trailers remained for three and a half years, almost the entire time Chepke was in medical school. The mobile labs were a daily reminder of the attacks to students who previously used the street to walk to their dormitory.
Some classmates volunteered to help with autopsies, but Chepke said he couldn’t handle it emotionally.
“A lot of people came out very traumatized,” he said.
As soon as it was possible, Chepke and classmates went to Ground Zero to hand out water.
“Everyone there felt a tremendous need to do something,” he said.
The students took their first anatomy test three days after 9/11. Two-thirds of the class failed, including Chepke, but the professor invalidated the scores, an unusual acknowledgement of stress the students were under.
As the country prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Chepke looks back at the terror attacks as a turning point in his life.
“For me, it put a lot of things in perspective. It was such a humbling experience,” he said. “It was the first time I’d ever thought about death and mortality.”
He said became more conscious of the value of life.
“You never know when our time on earth is going to end,” he said. “We need to make the most of the time that we have.”
His medical school class of about 160 students became unusually close, Chepke said. Several classmates changed their speciality to emergency medicine.
While many classmates suffered from post-traumatic stress, Chepke did not. While other stressful events in his life pale in comparison to what he experienced that day, Chepke said he doesn’t fear or dread the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
“I have never before and never since felt that afraid for my life,” he said.
This Sunday, Chepke said he will try to maintain a normal routine. He will watch some TV coverage of 9/11 memorials but avoid heart-wrenching programs that include details like phone calls victims made to loved ones.
“I will observe the anniversary privately, quietly,” Chepke said. “I will say an extra prayer or two for the people who lost their lives and those who are struggling with it and lost family members.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.