'Everybody came together': Springwater-Wayland EMS chief recounts New York City on 9/11

Springwater-Wayland EMS chief Fred Grambs was a volunteer ambulance corps captain in Queens on 9/11

By Jeff Miller
The Express

WAYLAND — For everyone old enough to remember Sept. 11, 2001, what started out as a perfectly normal day turned out to be harrowing. We can remember exactly where we were when we heard the news of the planes hitting the Twin Towers. As we commemorate the 20th anniversary of the largest attack on American soil, one local EMT shares his story of being in New York City on that day.

Fred Grambs, chief for Springwater-Wayland EMS, was a captain for Lindenwood Volunteer Ambulance Corps in Queens. He recalls arriving comfortably at work, and then, when the second plane hit, his boss immediately relieved him for duty with the ambulance service.

“I called the base to find out where our ambulances were, and couldn't get through. I knew we had one crew on, we had two ambulances, so I sat back and being an officer, I had to think about what to do,” he remembered. 

Though he worked about two miles from the World Trade Center, he made the decision to take a train to Queens. The train got shut down part way, so passengers had to be let out. It took a little while, but eventually, he made his way to the ambulance base. Since an ambulance and crew had already left for Ground Zero, he decided to stay with the second ambulance to make sure someone was covering Queens and the surrounding area.

Fred Grambs as an EMT captain in Lindenwood, NY circa 1999. Grambs is now the Springwater-Wayland EMS chief.

After a while, there were enough volunteers to staff a second ambulance. He said that a lot of people don’t realize the cascading effect of emergency services. There were about 35,000 people in his service area alone. If all emergency services are in one place, then there is no one left to take care of other calls. Dispatchers then have to call other services miles away. Grambs learned that firsthand.

About 1 p.m., they received a call to go to the Bronx, which is a two-hour drive from Queens.

“You’re the only unit we have anywhere available in the city,” he recalled the dispatcher saying.

At that, the call was for an incident about three blocks from a hospital, but there were no ambulances available from the hospital. They started heading out, but about 10 minutes later, they were redirected to an accident that was closer. The accident, however, required the jaws of life. Thankfully for the person trapped inside, the truck that brought the jaws of life happened to be five minutes away, but it was from a service that was based 90 miles away.

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About 2:30 in the afternoon, he responded to a fire at a hotel on the grounds of JFK Airport. Grambs recalls the airport having been locked down and seeing armored vehicles and men in fatigues. The ambulance had to be halted and checked before entering the grounds. He couldn’t help but wonder if the fire might be somehow related to the attack; but as we know, it turned out not to be.

Regarding Ground Zero, Grambs said that because communication systems were in such disarray, he wondered throughout the day who may have perished. It wasn’t until about 3 p.m. when he found out everyone in his company was okay.

“Basically, we found out our other ambulance was safe, the one that was downtown. It was acting up a little bit because it sucked in a lot of dust. But they were at one of the staging areas, so we got in communication with them through the dispatch center. And then we started kind of networking from there to find out where everybody was.”

Though everyone in his company survived, Grambs still knew about a dozen close friends who perished that day, including another EMT. In all, 11 EMS personnel died that day. Though the number is relatively small, it was still 11 too many, Grambs said.

One in particular, Zhe “Zack” Zeng, who was from Manhattan, attended graduate school at the University of Rochester. As a student, he worked with Brighton's EMS. Later that year, Brighton EMS donated an ambulance to Gramb’s ambulance company in Queens.

Regarding the aftermath, “It took about a week to get back to relative normal,” Grambs said. But what he saw in the days that followed was a unity among the people of New York City.

“People from New York City seem cold-hearted, but they’re not. It’s just that you have to be that way because everything is fast. But everything slowed down and everybody came together,” he said. 

He remembers the people who lived next door made cookies for the ambulance crew, and others would stop them to shake their hand and say "thank you."

In the days that followed, Grambs said people would come to the garage to see if they recognized anyone on missing-persons posters. In the days prior to cell phones and social media, he said, a lot of people were asking personally and searching door-to-door.

Springwater-Wayland EMS Chief Fred Grambs during a training exercise this spring.

Regarding the missing, Grambs recalled the eerie feeling in the days that followed when the A-train that he would take to-and-from work would go under the former World Trade Center. Many regular passengers that he had seen every day were now no longer there. He wondered if they were among those who perished.

“When the train went through the old World Trade Center Station, the station was obviously closed," he said. "Because of the instability of the site, the train had to travel at the slowest speed possible. As you go through the station, everyone was absolutely quiet. So doing that twice a day, every day, it really got to people who took that train.”

Though it took about one-to-two minutes for the subway to go under Ground Zero, one or two minutes felt like forever. All of the passengers became silent and somber during that time, he said.

Grambs said he never went to Ground Zero on Sept. 11, but did stop about 6 p.m. at the Great South Bay Bridge about 50-60 miles away, and looked at the skyline from a distance. It was hard for him to explain.

“That was ... to see the towers missing, that was something you’re used to seeing.”

This photo from 2018 gives us an idea of what Fred Grambs saw on the morning of Sept. 11. You can see the One World Trade Center in the distance.

Though he has gone back to New York City many times to visit family, he has never gone to Ground Zero. When asked if he ever will, he simply said, “I don’t know.”

Looking back on the 20th anniversary year, Grambs said the current situation in Afghanistan has been weighing heavily on his mind.

“What did we just do here?" he asked. "We’ve given the same people back power. Are we going to see the same kind of thing happen again down the road?”

He said that one thing people still need to remember is that 20 years after the incident, people are still dying as a result.

“I have a couple of old EMS partners that have gone through cancer,” he said. 

Grambs has been the chief of the Springwater-Wayland EMS since 2015. The garage, located in the former Bennett’s Buick dealership on the corner of Lackawanna and W. Naples Streets, has a small tribute in the front window to the 11 EMS service men and women who died 20 years ago.

The ambulance garage is currently undergoing renovations, and will be gearing up for a fundraising campaign this Fall for more renovations next year. Springwater-Wayland EMS is an independent 501(c)3 not-for-profit, and is not operated by any tax dollars. The fully-volunteer agency receives funds through donations, grants and billing. Lately, Grambs said, many grants that they have formerly received have been funneled to other causes.

Grambs moved to Wayland during the July 4 weekend of 2002, when he got married to a local woman. Though Wayland is drastically different from New York City, he loves living here where it’s safe, small, quiet and has much less traffic.

“I like the lower pace of life around here," he said. 

Today, Grambs works at Wayland-Cohocton Central School District as an Information Technology specialist.