Flight nurse remembers 9/11

Flight nurse remembers 9/11

by Allen Wolfe

Flying 200 feet above the Potomac River, I see some of the most amazing landmarks in the world — at angles hidden to most. I’ve grown accustomed to the unexpected while working 12-hour shifts as a flight nurse in the nation’s capital. From treating newborns with hypothermia to older patients in the throes of a heart attack, I can’t predict how my day will go. But nothing could have ever prepared me for the most disastrous terrorist attack in U.S. history.

Sitting on my porch in suburban Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, a large passenger plane buzzed so low overhead that I thought it might hit my house. I dropped to the deck. Moments later, I saw black smoke rise in the distance. It was my day off, but after seeing on TV that the plane had crashed into the Pentagon, I rushed off to work at Washington Hospital Center.

As I made my way toward the city, I drove past the Pentagon, where flames sent debris flying into the air and people were running for their lives. At the hospital, we had launched our helicopter fleet to the disaster area.

I changed into my scrubs and went to the helicopter pad outside the trauma unit to assist with a middle-aged female patient who had just been transported by air. The patient was burned over 60 percent of her body, covered with black soot, her clothes disintegrated, only the collar left from her blouse and a pair of gold earrings. The smell of fuel from the crashed plane was unmistakable on her body. I didn't know if she was alive or dead. I screamed under the noise of the rotors, "Can you hear me?" She nodded.

When we got her inside, I inserted a tube in her throat to help her breath and ran an IV to stabilize her before she was discharged to another unit of the hospital. Even on Sept. 11, patients didn't stop coming into the ER for reasons unrelated to the terrorist attack. One, a 16-year-old boy, had been shot in the chest, an all-too-common occurrence.

As the day continued, reality set in. We weren't getting as many patients from the Pentagon as expected — because so many had perished. We sat looking out the windows at the billowing smoke when a call came in for a patient whose heart device had failed.

We launched the helicopter, our route taking us right over the Pentagon. With the entire country's air transportation system grounded, our radio, usually overwhelmed with communication from the three international airports, was eerily quiet. The Pentagon was still burning, the destruction unbelievable. But seeing a bird's-eye view of the response on the ground to save lives and salvage the building was also astounding.

As we continued, it was frightening yet comforting to be escorted by F-16 fighter jets. We landed and I assessed the patient, whose left ventricular assist device, which helps the heart pump blood, had stopped working properly. We transported him to a nearby hospital where physicians and nurses joined in an ultimately futile effort to save his life.

We headed back to Washington, D.C., passing once more over the Pentagon. It was surreal seeing the gaping hole and quiet on the streets below. I ended the day reflecting on my role as a flight nurse — and a citizen of this country.

Allen Wolfe is the chief flight nurse of MedSTAR Transport at the Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. He has more than 25 years experience in the field and is president of the local chapter of the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.

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Mary Carol Pederson


Thank you for the timely reminder that lives were not only lost in the Twin Towers but also in the Pentagon. Thanks you to Allen Wolfe and to so many others that were there to care for those injured and lost one that horrible, tragic day.

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