Dark tragedy often allows bright lights to shine - like Mark
Ackermann, spokesman for New York's Saint Vincent's Hospital. When
disaster struck, he kept a city - and nation - well informed.
Back at work six days after the terrorist attacks on New York, Saint
Vincent's Hospital spokesman Mark Ackermann thought the crowds of
journalists outside might have abated. They had not.
Saint Vincent's - the trauma hospital closest to the World Trade
Center - had become a rallying point for both journalists seeking out
Ackermann's briefings and victims' families, hopeful of some positive
news. Neither party wanted to give up.
Ackermann is the hospital's SVP and chief corporate officer charged with
relaying information about patients, their injuries, and their numbers.
He battled his way to work on Tuesday, September 11 after New Jersey was
sealed off from Manhattan.
As the size of the disaster became apparent, Ackermann braced himself
for the arrival of around 1,000 patients, and began briefing the media
every half hour as the injured were brought in. At first, some 250
patients streamed through the doors, and the hospital runners raced to
pass their names, addresses, and injuries from the triage doctors to the
hospital registrar, and finally to Ackermann. "I knew constantly about
80-90 patients and how many were emergency workers," he says. "Then the
ambulances stopped coming."
Ackermann's briefings became hourly, and he was joined in front of the
cameras by both Mayor Giuliani and Governor Pataki. With TV stations
struggling for updates, Ackermann's briefings were broadcast live
between repeated shots of the blazing towers and the smoking Pentagon.
"It wasn't until several days later that I realized I was doing all
these briefings live," he says. "I thought I was being videotaped."
Ackermann set up his podium across the street from the hospital to
enable officials and ambulances to arrive undisturbed, while giving the
camera crews good visuals. "The things that were on my mind were
maintaining my own composure to give a sense of calm, and that we were
prepared and here to serve."
So busy was Ackermann that he didn't even see footage of the planes
crashing into the World Trade Center until two days later. And
unfortunately, it isn't the first time he's seen disaster strike at that
A 19-year veteran of the hospital, Ackermann was around to see patients
from the 1993 bombing. "Back then, the magnitude was much less. This
time it was 900 patients in the last six days. Then we saw 200."
Back then, Ackermann says a decision was made in the aftermath of the
1993 incident that if disaster struck again, he would do formal press
While other hospitals were allowing cameras inside, Ackermann decided to
draw the line. "We firmly believe patient privacy is sacrosanct. I have
received some criticism for that."
As the week wore on, Ackermann altered the main themes of his press
briefings. "We wanted to help calm people. We weren't running out of
blood, but we wanted to point people toward a human-interest story: the
800 people lined up outside to donate blood. Kathleen Turner even came
Working closely with his team of three and Dan Klores Communications
staff, Ackermann says they discussed other message points: "The
importance of talking to children and helping parents look after them.
We started talking about the work of other agencies, and the need for
people to give blood next week."
When asked what advice he would give other PR people in a similar
situation, Ackermann said, "Because we've had so many disasters, we have
a good plan. Everyone knows the information goes to one place and to one
As the week closed, Ackermann realized the enormity of the events he had
been dealing with. "I'm overwhelmed now. On Friday, I had 15 minutes to
go back to my office to read e-mails, and I broke down. The human side
comes out in the midst of so many lives lost."
Ackermann is no doubt relieved to return to his position as a
little-known hospital spokesman. "A good plan and a good team was really
key to what I was able to do," he says. "God willing, we'll never have
to go through anything like this again."
His PR objectives met, Ackermann is understandably downbeat about the
circumstances. "In a sad way, Saint Vincent's got some recognition. I
wish it could have been another way."
1983: Joins as director of resource development for Saint Vincent's
Catholic Medical Centers of New York
1988: VP responsible for public affairs, marketing, and strategic
1990: SVP and assistant to the president
1993: SVP for clinical affairs
Present: SVP and chief corporate affairs officer