Friday, November 9, 2001

Virginia State Trooper Michael Middleton was eight miles from the Pentagon on September 11 when he heard the thrusters of a plane he realized was flying too low. A few minutes later, a southwest portion of the Pentagon exploded in flames.
The 35-year-old police officer raced to the scene. Eight minutes later, he recalled, he dived into a fiery abyss that was pitch black and full of smoke. The wall to his left leaned dangerously. Water from broken pipes and sprinklers poured onto the ground. Live wires sparked and danced. Plane parts glowed red.
He found his way by feeling the walls. Another officer held up a section of a fallen wall so he could squeeze through because he heard voices and screams.
Trooper Middleton did a room-to-room search and found trapped Pentagon workers. He crawled up a stairwell. A door at the end of the hall glowed red. He dropped onto his stomach and crawled. Singed papers indicated fire on the other side of the wall.
“I was getting disoriented,” he said. “Lacking a breathing mask, I took on too much jet fuel. The heat was so intense that I stopped sweating. I couldn’t get a deep breath.”
“But I heard people screaming. I couldn’t turn my back on them,” he added.
Pulled outside by a Pentagon police officer, Officer Middleton collapsed. Medics inserted an intravenous drip and put him on a gurney. All he remembers after that are explosions and darkness, warm arms holding him and soft soothing words of the doctors and nurses healing him.
He slipped into a coma.
In the wake of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon that killed 189, Officer Middleton became one of scores of the injured. And as police, fire and other emergency personnel raced to save victims, medical personnel at area hospitals were ready and waiting, the unsung heroes of the aftermath.
At area hospitals, emergency plans went into effect. Triage teams assembled. Burn specialists were put on alert. Hospital beds cleared. And nurses and doctors from around the region came in to help.
“It wasn’t just another busy day at work,” said Dr. John Sverha, assistant director of the Emergency Department at the Virginia Hospital Center. “Everyone wanted to help. We’re just thankful that we had jobs that allowed us to do so.”
Dr. Marion Gordon, who runs the burns and trauma section at Washington Hospital Center and has performed 92 burn surgeries since September 11, agreed.
“We had an opportunity to salvage something good from a tragic situation, while most others could only sit and watch reruns of planes crashing into famous buildings,” he said.
In May, Col. John Geiling of the Delorenzo Tricare Health Clinic at the Pentagon held a rehearsal of such an event at his clinic. That memory haunted him as he stood across the Potomac River at the Jefferson Memorial in his white lab coat and grey scrubs and watched his building burned. A police officer stopped him from crossing the bridge.
“I felt helpless,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Other doctors and nurses expressed sadness because they couldn’t do more.
“Everyone was ready, but after a while, no more ambulances arrived,” said Heather McCorry, a nurse at the Virginia Hospital Center. “That indicated a greater tragedy than we initially realized.”
Then there are the happy endings.
Partially paralyzed, suffering from burns to the throat, esophagus and lungs, a collapsed lung and pneumonia, Trooper Middleton was heading toward organ failure. To the staff of Inova Alexandria Hospital, he was special. He was a hero hurt and they were determined to heal him.
In the end, he saved four lives. And they saved his.
“To be called a hero, no. Your time and effort is why I am here today. Thank you. You are the heroes,” the state trooper told doctors and nurses from area hospitals at a banquet in their honor yesterday.
And they hugged him tight, kissing his cheeks, squeezing his hands tearfully at the banquet that quickly became a reunion. These are his nurses, relieved that the thinner, but healthy trooper was back on his feet and back to work this weekend for the first time since September 11. They reminisced about the past seven weeks.
They comforted him through flashbacks and nightmares and when X-ray machine rumblings and hospital blackouts brought him back to the Pentagon.
“When the sun went down, Mike relived the trauma,” said nurse Ellen Smith. “But he felt safe with me there.”
Once when he needed to be moved for a bronchoscopy, doctors, technicians and nurses lined the halls with flags and tears to honor him.
“We were worried because we knew his lungs had been compromised with all the debris obstructing them and all the smoke he inhaled,” Miss Smith said. “We were so proud to take care of him, honored to be able to help him.”
Everyone owned the trooper, said Marian Yoaikum, the nurse who admitted him to the hospital. “We were not going to let anything go wrong.”
Dr. Thomas Smikniotopoulos took care of the trooper and got an experimental drug for him when he “turned sour” and became sicker.
“I could not allow him to suffer anymore,” said Dr. Smikniotopoulos. “He says to me now, ‘You’re a hero.’ The truth is, I saved a hero’s life.”

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