For this generation…

  • Published
  • By Michael Moore, Director of Staff, 75th Air Base Wing

HILL AIR FORCE BASE – For this generation, not everyone will remember what they were doing on September 11, 2001. After 22 years since the event, nearly everyone below the rank of E-4 and new second lieutenants weren't even born. However, I will always remember standing before a collapsing section of the Pentagon when two disaster response units from Metro Washington Airport Authority (MWAA) rolled up. In college, I was a certified and highly experienced Pennsylvania Emergency Medical Technician-Paramedic II; on 9-11 those skills proved invaluable. On this twenty-second anniversary, I’d like to share the lessons I learned for anyone interested. 

The crash scene was tense and chaotic as the 20,000+ people who worked in the Pentagon flooded out all major exits. Drivers along I-395 stopped their cars everywhere at the same time. Virtually everyone evacuating, moved away from the scene to safety. When the disaster response truck stopped in front of me, I walked to the senior paramedic and offered to help. As I talked to him, the lessons from a mass-casualty class from 14 years earlier rushed back as if only yesterday and I hit him with many questions. He paused for a minute, handed me his radio and orange vest and then made a simple pronouncement; “You’re better qualified to handle this than I am—you’re now the Triage Commander. What do you want me to do?”

OK, now this was unexpected.

From the look on his face, and the situation around us, this didn’t seem the time to argue. When I put on the vest this instantly made me the focal point for the wave of volunteers moving in to help. I drew upon my past training and experiences and matched incoming qualified volunteers with the four sections required for a full triage area. We unloaded the response trucks rapidly, set up the area, and stabilized the wounded as they arrived.

Things came together at lightning speed and we prepared most of the injured for immediate transport about 15 minutes after set-up.  Meanwhile, my new friend the senior medic, organized a transportation coordinator and staging route for the various ambulances now rolling on scene. Continuing smoothly, our teams packaged our wounded off in pairs and almost cleared the first wave of patients when an FBI vehicle moved in with loudspeakers blaring. They’d received word that a Boeing 757 was now only 20 miles away from the Pentagon moving fast up the Potomac. They obviously felt this aircraft intended to repeat the World Trade Center scenario that played out less than an hour prior. 

It was time to move…

Although it took a minute or two to explain this to my cell team leaders, we took all equipment and bugged out to under the nearby overpass. In short order, all team leads reestablished their areas and started taking on the second wave of patients. Since we relocated to an area with solid cover, good ingress/egress routes, and an area for helicopter staging, this worked in our favor. As for the errant 757 pilot, he simply needed the best route out of the chaotic airspace mess resulting from National Airport’s closing and they eventually landed at Baltimore.

About 90 minutes into this scenario, most patients got treated and evacuated. We then started preparing for extended recovery support operations. With 209 volunteers from all backgrounds, 16 ambulances, 3 helicopters, and two large passenger cruise buses we felt ready for anything. Critical medical supplies came in via helicopter from Walter Reed Medical Center. Most remarkable of all, a Rexall Drug Store delivery driver got permission from the president of the company to divert to us and open his 40’ trailer load of medical stores to our support operation. We organized food & water, chairs, lights and all other necessities for extended operations. This team remained operational and treating patients for over 12 hours before we relocated again to a semi-permanent treatment facility.

The lesson? Preparation, good training, and experience will always provide the keys to effective readiness. Yes, I served as a paramedic in college but you usually only treat one patient—or at most two—at a time. In this situation, I personally treated no one; I responded as a medical logistics coordinator in a high OPTEMPO situation. The lessons I learned as a junior officer on the flight line and in OREs did the most to prepare me for the no-notice leadership challenge of a lifetime. Take advantage of every training opportunity and learn all that you can. You never know when, or in what manner, our nation may call on your services. Be ready.