Lying in the tunnel of a PET scan, Charlie Nash’s mind was assaulted on two fronts.
It was the morning of Sept. 11, 2015. The scan fell on a day that always brought flashbacks, painful reminders of when Nash’s New York City ambulance crew responded to the terror attacks at the World Trade Center in 2001. What made this one worse was that doctors were looking for signs of cancer, which they feared had been caused by his exposure to the toxic debris from the destroyed skyscrapers.
“[I’m] in this machine going through the worst time every year wondering if I have cancer or not,” he said. “That was bad.”
He remembers it was 8:46 a.m., the time American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center’s North Tower on Sept. 11, 2001.
Nash always wanted to work in emergency services.
Originally from Pawling, New York, he’d grown up in a community where life revolved around the firehouse. That's where the Cub Scouts met. The department’s hall held weddings and public meetings. His neighbors were firefighters.
“My whole life I was just drawn to the fire department,” he said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
In high school, he began working as a volunteer firefighter. He took an EMT course as a senior, and when he graduated, he began working on an ambulance.
Early in his career, he was working in Yonkers, New York, when he responded to the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center.
That was the first time he’d been to the trade center. The second was on Sept. 11, 2001.
That morning, Nash remembers taking the train to Grand Central Station. He walked about 10 blocks to his job at a private company that had a contract to provide ambulance services. The entrance of the hospital ER where he brought patients sat in the shadow of the Empire State Building.
Nash had just arrived and was getting prepared to start a 9 a.m. shift on Unit 08C. A security guard in the ER ran up to him.
“Did you see that plane?” he asked. “A plane almost hit the Empire State Building.”
Nash had no idea what was going on. He remembers running to get a better view and looking south. He saw black smoke.
“Oh my God,” he recalled thinking. “We’ve got to go. … We’ve got to put ourselves on the job. This is big, whatever it is.”
His normal partner hadn’t even arrived, so he started work with two guys who had been on shift since 9 p.m.
The response was so rushed that the crew was riding in a spare ambulance, which didn’t have the usual radios and computers. Other ambulances joined the response. He heard someone say to send every ambulance available.
Traffic was terrible, but the ambulance crew spotted an FDNY hazmat truck and started following it, knowing the larger vehicle would clear a path for them.
When they got to the towers, Nash noticed lower windows were shattered.
At the scene, a police officer brought a man to them who had been severely burned. Nash was told to take him to a burn center.
The request seemed odd. In mass casualty events, crews often take victims to the closest hospital, but Nash and his team did as they were told.
En route, they gave the man oxygen and wrapped him a burn blanket. The man’s clothes would fall off when he was touched. He wore a Mickey Mouse watch.
“You couldn’t tell the difference between his band and his skin,” Nash said. “The only thing you could see was the part of the watch face on the top of his wrist.”
After leaving the patient at the burn center, the crew headed back to the World Trade Center. Unbeknownst to them, the South Tower had already collapsed.
The chaos made driving difficult. Crowds were heading north. The ambulance crew pushed pallets of seafood out of the way to clear space. Nash wanted to get back to Liberty Street, knowing he could get back to the WTC.
He saw a fighter jet fly over and wondered why it was there.
The ambulance stopped a few blocks from the trade center. A crowd had gathered and a big transit cop told the crew a man there needed help. They told him they had to get to the trade center, but the officer said he wouldn’t let them go until they helped the man. Worried about the angry crowd, Nash agreed to check on the victim.
He remembers seeing a young guy motionless on the pavement. There were no signs of obvious trauma, but the man had no pulse. Still wary of the crowd, Nash and his crew loaded the dead man’s body into the ambulance anyway.
As they got ready to leave, Nash remembers a panicking man with a briefcase pleading with him, “Is it safe to go north?”
They told him that’s what they were telling everyone.
As soon as the ambulance door closed, Nash saw the businessman slip and fall.
Then he heard what sounded like a truckload full of dirt being dumped on the ambulance. Objects pelted the roof and windows. In the middle of a clear morning, darkness surrounded the vehicle.
The crew tried opening the door, but dust poured in. They slammed it closed.
The EMTs panicked. They called mayday over the radio.
Nash lowered himself between the stretcher and a bench. He recited the Lord’s Prayer.
When the debris stopped falling on the ambulance, the crew again tried to revive the dead man. As they performed CPR, Nash noticed a streetlight outside the back window.
“It’s like winter,” he said. “It was like a really bad snowstorm at night.”
He finally reached someone on his Nextel phone.
The crew decided to head to St. Vincent’s hospital.
As the dust cleared, people ran. Someone started banging on the ambulance door. Nash saw a small woman dragging an EMT with an obvious leg injury. The EMT kept talking about missing his partner. The woman, though unhurt, was hysterical, and the crew sat her in the front seat as they traveled to the hospital. They took the injured EMT to an emergency room.
In a brief moment, Nash looked south toward the towers.
He only saw smoke.
“It’s something you see every day,” he said. “Now the trade center’s not there. So it was really hard to comprehend. … Just surreal. You didn’t know what that term meant unless you were there. People say things are surreal. Well, how do you define that? Well, if you were at 9/11, that’s the definition.”
After dropping off the EMT, he remembers going to a staging area where other ambulances had lined up from New Jersey, Long Island and elsewhere. Unit08C was the only one in that group covered in debris.
Nash remembers the eerie wait for calls that didn’t come.
“That was it,” he said. “There was no call. We weren’t going down there. … There was nothing because there were no patients. Everybody was either dead or they were fine enough to walk.”
There were other surreal moments. Finally watching the news and understanding what had happened. Talking with the crew about what may have transpired if the mob hadn’t made them pick up the dead guy before the second tower fell.
“If those people didn’t stop us,” Nash said, “we wouldn’t be here right now.”
Eventually, his ambulance was told to respond to emergencies outside of the trade center area. He remembers some of the later calls were for drunks, people he assumed were trying to drown the day’s horrors.
When his shift ended, he walked back to the train station. The area was crowded. When a train finally arrived, the cars filled up quickly. He figured he’d be waiting another hour or two just to get a ride. Then a conductor noticed the dirty EMT. She went to one of the cars and told the passengers they would have to wait, that there was a problem with this one.
Then she asked him where he was going. He told her the Brewster North station.
“Get on,” she said. “I’ll turn the lights out for you. And I’ll wake you up when your stop comes."
In the days and weeks that followed, Nash would learn about an ambulance unit south of him that lost a crew member and one just north that had two members perish. And the EMT who was looking for his partner? Nash remembers when they buried her.
He often wondered about the burn victim. Had he survived? Had the crew actually helped him? He found his answer years later when he saw the man interviewed on a documentary.
Nash later contacted him and the two talked about the watch. The man had been a vice president at Cantor Fitzgerald, which lost 658 workers in the attacks. No firm was hit harder.
The man, who was in an elevator on his way his office in the upper level floors in the north tower when the plane hit, told Nash he knew the EMT was telling the truth because of the Mickey Mouse watch, a one-of-a-kind gift from his children.
“That watch has been ingrained in my mind for 20 years,” Nash said.
After the attacks, Nash took another ambulance job in New York. One day, he got a call from a former coworker who knew him from their days in Yonkers. His buddy had come to Myrtle Beach on a golfing trip and noticed Horry County Fire Rescue was hiring. He got a job and he thought Nash should join, too.
“Man, you’ve got to come down here,” his friend said.
Nash didn’t need time to think it over. He joined the department in July of 2002.
The Grand Strand gave Nash more than just firefighting opportunities. Here he chased childhood dreams as way to cope with the trauma of 9-11.
He’d always wanted to be a rock star, so he formed a cover band called Bad Luck with some local police officers. Nash played the drums at the House of Blues and Hard Rock Café.
He’d always wanted to be a professional wrestler, and he got that opportunity, too. He even did some promotional work for a wrestling outfit in Myrtle Beach.
Along the way, he occasionally had to choose between his other passions and firefighting.
Firefighting won every time.
“I wanted to go where the sirens are going,” he said.
These days, Nash makes his home in the Loris area. The 48-year-old is a battalion chief at the Finklea firehouse, HCFR Station No. 6.
Nash admits the last few years have been tough. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer. The chemotherapy sapped him, leaving him a different man post-treatment.
And he still struggles at the end of each summer, knowing Sept. 11 is approaching. He has a hard time going to memorials. Just sitting through that morning hurts.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s 20 years,” he said. “Twenty years is just the anniversary.”
Yet he still feels the need to be a first responder, to be ready when called upon.
“It’s still the best job in the world,” he said. “I’ve gotten to do everything that I wanted to do, but I would take firefighting over that any day. There’s just nothing like the camaraderie of the firehouse, the family, and of course what you get to do every day. You get to help people. … I just can’t imagine doing anything else. I just can’t.”