Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Sept. 11, 2001, started off as just another day for Dr. Harry Marshak.

“I was working then at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary in Manhattan, which is maybe two miles away from Ground Zero,” recalled Marshak, who now practices ophthalmic plastic and facial surgery in Palm Desert. “We were in the middle of surgery when a nurse came in and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Everybody thought, ‘Well, it’s just a small plane that must have gone into the building.’ But people kept coming in with reports, so (when) we were done with surgery, we went up to the roof.

“The tower that we could have seen had already fallen. Everyone was in shock. So the question was what to do next. The hospital had an emergency protocol which we went through—but we had only one, not-too-severely injured fireman brought in. And then it was quiet.”

Marshak had been living in New York City for 11 years at the time of the tragedy.

“We were watching TV at the time, and there was a call out that they needed doctors at St. Vincent’s Hospital, which was the closest hospital to Ground Zero,” he said. “So, with some other doctors, I went over. When we got there, they had discharged everybody from the emergency room. There were no patients. There were empty beds lined up in there. They had gurneys outside covered in sheets. They were expecting hundreds of patients, but there was nobody there.”

Marshak shook his head gently as he spoke. “Now, the inclination is to find where the need is. So next, I ended up at Chelsea Piers. The city took over these piers on the westside in the ’20s, and they had this emergency plan set up that went into action. There were maybe 50 folding tables set up as operating tables with some cushions, and they had surgical equipment. They were organizing teams of four doctors for each table: a surgeon, an anesthesiologist and two other medical professionals. We got assigned to these teams—and then we were waiting, and there wasn’t anybody there.

“But there was another room where people with minor injuries were just walking in or brought by ambulance,” Marshak continued. “I found all these people who had eye problems, because a lot of debris was getting in people’s eyes—fiberglass and chemicals were in the air—so I got involved in flushing out people’s eyes, and pulling things out of their eyes. I was the only doctor there with eye training, so I taught others how to flush out an eye. Some of the firemen had contact lenses and needed to get them cleaned out and put back in without losing them, so they could go back out and do their job. I mean, they were minor ailments, but if you didn’t know what you were doing, then you could do more harm than good.”

Marshak took a deep breath. “So I stayed there until pretty early in the morning (of Wednesday the 12th). Then I went home for a few hours, got up and went back. I took a bunch of supplies from that Chelsea facility, put them in my car and drove down to Ground Zero.

“It was kind of just chaos down there. I remember walking through thick muck on the ground. You would put your foot down, and it would just stick. It was debris and water from the fire hoses. And the air—I was carrying a heavy box of irrigating fluid, and I was having trouble catching my breath because of the smoke and the difficulty walking. Finally, I found other doctors, and there were people to treat, but, again, it was minor injuries. Most of the people we were treating were rescue workers.”

After a moment’s pause, Dr. Marshak added: “After two days, what became clear was that when the planes hit, either you got out of the towers, or you didn’t. We hadn’t seen injuries directly related to the tower strikes. Almost none.”

As the week unfolded, both the determination of New York’s citizens and the impact of the terrorist attack on U.S. soil were revealed.

“Now the rescue workers weren’t just professionals—they were all these people trying to go through rubble and getting hurt,” Marshak said. “Just anybody in New York was coming down. People weren’t looting. They were trying to help, but people were getting hurt.

“We ended up in the American Express building, which was right next to the WTC complex. There were makeshift triage centers. Hospitals were sending in supplies. And then they started giving us masks, so we started handing out masks to everyone. As time went on, we’d get better masks, and then (even) better masks. We began to wonder: What have we been breathing in? But that’s the way it goes.”

Marshak said the scale of the violence perpetrated on Sept. 11 became more evident as the days passed. “A morgue was set up in the atrium of the American Express building. I recall the remains of maybe 20 or 30 people, and there were priests giving last rites.” Marshak said. “When you were walking around down there, you can’t imagine the size of the rubble. ‘The Pile,’ they called it. I mean, the enormity of the destruction was beyond words—to see a building on its side across the West Side Highway. Tower 7 was tilted over and still smoldering. There were people climbing up the side of the building to see if anyone was inside. I mean, these were just civilians, you know. There was just so much destruction.”

Raised in the Los Angeles area, Marshak has now been a resident of the Coachella Valley for nine years.

“Before that day, I was complacent. I liked the ophthalmology and eye surgery that I was doing, but I wasn’t passionate about it,” the doctor said. “So I decided to do ocular or ophthalmic plastic surgery, which is reconstructive for the eyelid and the eye socket—basically, the upper two-thirds of the face. Also, how I approach medicine became more hard-core.”

He would soon leave New York for a fellowship at the University of Southern California, starting in July 2003.

“During my fellowship at USC, I was on call 24-7 for two years, and I operated almost every night in the middle of the night,” he said. “That’s what I wanted. I needed to immerse myself.”

And today? “People say that I’m a workaholic now. But I just like what I do, and I’m passionate about what I do now,” he said.

Why did he choose to set up his practice in Palm Desert? “I first came out here to do some training, and I saw the need for ocular plastic surgery out here. There are enough surgeons in L.A.”

For more information on Dr. Harry Marshak, visit

Published in Features

The controversial Zero Dark Thirty, director Kathryn Bigelow’s excellently crafted version of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, has a bunch of politicians and CIA officials crying foul. This makes me think the movie must contain some harsh truths and grim realities about the war on terror.

The film is virtually absent of politics, or any of that “America, fuck yeah!” nonsense. It offers an interpretation of the steps that were taken, and the deeds that were done, to rid the world of a true menace. Many of those deeds are done in a calm, calculated and perhaps even cold manner; at times, the film is spooky to watch. The people depicted in this movie mean business, and will do whatever it takes to get a job done. That includes waterboarding and literally scaring the shit out of detainees.

The film starts with a black screen and some terrifying messages left by Sept. 11 victims as they were close to death in the Twin Towers. It sets the tone for the unsettling film that’s about to happen.

We see Maya (Jessica Chastain)—a new, determined CIA officer (apparently a composite character of actual people) on the Bin Laden case—about to witness a torture chamber. Dan (Jason Clarke), another CIA agent, will use waterboarding, isolation boxes, dog collars and psychological mind games to try to draw some names out of a strong-willed detainee (a powerful Reda Kateb). Dan eventually gets a big name out of the detainee, and a long hunt that will see many casualties, including CIA agents, begins in earnest.

Is the movie pro-torture? Definitely not. Is it anti-torture? It isn’t that, either. The film is supposedly being investigated for using classified information when it comes to American interrogation tactics. Thankfully, I am no expert on the matter. This is a movie that leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether these types of interrogation methods were necessary in the pursuit of bin Laden.

Zero Dark Thirty clocks in at 157 minutes, with all but 40 of those devoted to Maya’s behind-the-scenes, dogged pursuit of public enemy No. 1. The last 40 minutes completely switch gears, as the film becomes an intense depiction of the final SEAL Team 6 mission that ended with “Geronimo.” All 157 minutes are top-notch, provocative and incendiary filmmaking. Bigelow has most certainly topped herself, including her Oscar-winning effort The Hurt Locker.

As for the raid itself, it’s dark and quiet. From the muffled “fwup, fwup, fwup” of the experimental helicopters (one of which crashed) as they swerve through mountain ranges, to the quick and decisive shots ending lives in that now-familiar structure in Pakistan, it’s all precise and stealthy. The aspect of the raid that unsettled me the most was the way Navy SEALS are depicted quietly and invitingly calling out the name “Osama?” before they shoot him.

Chastain, in just a couple of years, has become one of the world’s most dynamic, downright-reliable actresses. From her Oscar-nominated turn in The Help, to her beautiful supporting work in The Tree of Life and Take Shelter, she is creating one memorable character after another. Maya is her crowning achievement, and the role should get her another Oscar nomination.

Clarke is eerily effective as an interrogation man who needs a break and heads back to Washington, D.C., for a desk job. Kyle Chandler is appropriately complicated as Joseph Bradley, the CIA station chief in Islamabad. Jennifer Ehle plays a strangely happy and charged-up CIA agent, who goes so far as to bake a cake for an interviewee. (I know Bigelow and crew added some fiction to their story, but this seemed a little far-fetched. I was more convinced by the Maserati that somebody got for an interview than I was by the cake baking.)

As for the Team 6 sequence, Joel Edgerton (Warrior) and Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation) are standouts. (Pratt’s character is listening to Tony Robbins as the helicopter approaches its final destination.) He tells his comrades that he has plans after the mission. Perhaps Bigelow is suggesting that the Pratt character is the Team 6 member who eventually wrote the best-selling No Easy Day.

Ultimately, Zero Dark Thirty is a film epic and efficient enough to be compared to the great films of Coppola, Scorsese and Kubrick. It’s an important and engaging piece of work from a director who looks like she is just starting to hit her stride.

Zero Dark Thirty <i>opens at theaters across the valley on Friday, Jan. 11.</i>

Published in Reviews