By Emma Hitt, PhD
ATLANTA (Reuters Health) – Immediately following the World Trade Center (WTC) attack, nearly 800 survivors sought treatment at nearby hospitals, mainly for smoke inhalation and eye injuries, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Thursday. About 30% of those treated were rescue workers.
Local health officials reviewed records from four hospitals closest to the crash site and a fifth that served as a burn referral center. They looked at the records of 790 people treated at the hospitals within 48 hours after the attack. Numerous other survivors were treated at other hospitals in New York, as well as at hospitals in New Jersey and Connecticut.
"The arrival of injured persons…began within minutes of the attack and peaked 2 to 3 hours later," the investigators report in the January 11 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. About half received care within 7 hours of the attack, according to the CDC. Overall, 73% were treated and released, 16% were hospitalized. Four people (less than 1%) died during emergency care. Those treated ranged in age from younger than 1 year to 95 years of age, though the median age was 39.
Approximately half of the injured survivors suffered inhalation injuries and about one fourth had eye injuries, they report.
The study found differences in the proportion of injury types among rescue workers compared with other survivors. About 40% of the treated rescue workers sustained eye injuries, compared with only about 20% of other survivors. But fewer rescue workers (2%) sustained burns than did the other survivors (6%).
According to Dr. Pauline Thomas of the New York City Department of Health, rescue workers may have had more eye injuries because they tended to be going towards the buildings when they collapsed. They may also have been more likely to seek treatment at hospitals, rather than caring for their injuries themselves at home.
"Inhalation and ocular injuries were diagnosed and treated more frequently following the WTC attack than the attacks in Oklahoma City and on the US Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon," the investigators note. This may have been because exposure to smoke and inhalable dust was more widespread after the New York City attack, they suggest.
Disasters usually have a first wave of survivors with minor injuries, a second wave of more severely injured survivors and subsequent waves of survivors rescued from the disaster site, the authors note.
But in the case of the WTC attack, there was only one large first wave of survivors and a second wave the next day, largely made up of rescue workers, the authors note.
"Few survivors were extricated from the WTC site, probably because of the limited number of survivable spaces left by the overwhelming forces of the collapse of the 110-story towers," they write.
"There was only one [major] wave of survivors–those who were able to exit the buildings," Dr. Thomas told Reuters Health. "No living persons were rescued after the first day."