9/11 Stories: NYC EMS Chief Lillian Bonsignore


On September 11th she was a rank and file EMS’er. Bonsignore was one of the lead instructors at the EMT academy, which routinely re-trains crews every three years. On 9/11, after the second plane hit the second tower, everyone at the academy boarded city buses. In a convoy, they headed down the West Side Highway to lower Manhattan. They were all scared. From the highway, they could see the burning towers. In disbelief, they watched the first tower collapse. Everyone was silent. As they arrived to what they first thought would be a rescue scene, the second tower collapsed. Still on the bus, they were enveloped by a cloud of dust, dirt and smoke. Lillian was assigned to head the triage team, which quickly turned into a morgue team. Their job was to identify body parts as male, female, civilian, or members of the New York City Fire Department or NYPD. After 18 straight hours, Bonsignore says her body quit. She had never ever felt that degree of exhaustion. Although it had just begun to rain, Lillian wrapped herself in a donated blanket and slept on the open sidewalk. After about an hour of shut-eye, she returned to the job of identifying the body parts. Lillian Bonsignore didn’t know she was on a missing-in-action-list. Her two daughters, just 3 and 14, didn’t know if their mom was dead or alive. After 2 days, still covered in the dust of the World Trade Center, Lillian hitched a ride to her daughter’s Catholic school. The entire school poured out to greet her and pray with her for the many souls that were lost.  Days later, Bonsignore’s 13 year old daughter made up her mind: my mom will never be there alone again. When she was old enough, she joined the EMS, serving three years.