J.B. Nassif knelt on the floor of the crowded ambulance, pushing aside a tangle of IV bottles and trying to monitor three patients, while two medics worked on a burn victim in critical condition.
“I wanted to hold his hand, but I couldn’t because each finger was covered with gauze.I was afraid the skin would fall off,” he said.
The GW emergency health science major’s first day riding along with Arlington County paramedics brought him to the Pentagon Sept. 11.
Whether the ill-fated day was a curse or a blessing for his future profession, it was an experience the junior transfer student from University of Maryland said he would never forget.
The critical patient was covered in saline to treat first-, second- and third-degree burns, Nassif said. Most of his clothes were burned off, leaving behind pieces of a military uniform. The man was in shock, shaking and smelled like fuel from the jet that crashed into the Pentagon, Nassif said.
“I was shocked when I saw him. I had never seen that kind of trauma before.burns to that extent,” he said. “Everything that could be going wrong with him was.”
From routine to tragic
Hours earlier, Nassif began his day with a routine call of chest pain and transported the caller to the emergency room. There, he saw television news reports that the World Trade Center had been hit. A staff member told him America was under attack.
While doing paperwork for the call back at the fire station, Nassif heard about another plane that hit the second WTC tower. But he was again torn away from the unfolding events, as Nassif’s crew was called to the apartment of an unconscious person.
As medics and firemen lifted an obese man onto a stretcher, Nassif went outside to get more equipment.
“I heard this whoosh,” he said. “It sounded like a fighter jet. It was almost like I could reach out and touch it with my hand; it was so fast and loud.”
Emergency tones came over all radios with the announcement “Attention all units. The Pentagon has just been hit by an aircraft.” But the crew still had a patient to take care of.
“I really didn’t know what to think. I was just numb. regardless of how big the problem is, you just have to work it, work the problem,” he said.
When the crew arrived at the ER, Nassif, who had done clinical rotations at GW Hospital, said he had never seen anything like it. Doctors and nurses ran around setting up intravenous treatments, while Nassif and the medics grabbed drugs and supplies.
The `war zone’
Nassif’s ambulance was sent to the triage area, which was set up outside of the Pentagon building for patients to be evaluated.
He could not see the Pentagon because of a hill but could see a large cloud of black smoke.
After a few dispatches unrelated to the Pentagon attack that left the crew anxious to help, the medics finally headed to a military hospital to transport Pentagon victims to Arlington Community Hospital.
It was at the military hospital where Nassif first witnessed the destruction caused by the attacks, picking up the burned victim along with three others.
One 78-year-old woman who lay on the ambulance’s bench had broken both legs after she jumped out of a Pentagon second story window, Nassif said. The window had been blown open from intense fire and lots of smoke, but rescue workers below caught her. Although she was covered in cuts and scrapes, she was joking and laughing, telling the medics that it was going to be OK and that they were doing a fantastic job, Nassif said.
Another patient was in the captain’s chair at the front of the ambulance with gauze around his head from a wound. He wore a military officer’s uniform and told Nassif the blast had been like a rainstorm. Instead of rain, the man said, it was pieces of glass and shrapnel.
The last patient was a civilian, about 25 years old, coughing up black fluid from smoke inhalation.
Nassif said he caught glimpses out the window of the “war zone” outside – National Guard, Jeeps, military convoys and army medical helicopters.
At that point, Nassif said he had a lot of trouble keeping it all together with his emotional state, his family, the patients and the world outside.
He said he wondered, “What’s the rest of the world doing? Because, right now, my world is this ambulance.”
The crew finally arrived at the Pentagon at about 5 p.m., Nassif said. He was amazed to see the monumental building destroyed, with one side in rubble, fire coming out of windows and glass rippling and melting from the heat.
Inflatable hospital bays were set up with florescent lights in a sea of ambulances and other emergency rescue vehicles waiting to be used. Nassif said he also saw a field morgue, which consisted of a 60-by-60-foot white plastic sheet.
“Before that, it didn’t register for me that lives were lost,” Nassif said.
Nassif said he saw a body, covered in plastic, hanging out of window that could not be pulled out.
“That got me right there,” he said. “Being right in front of American disaster, seeing what it did to people. The most difficult part of being a medic is acknowledging the fact that people die and, in some cases you encounter, there will be absolutely nothing you can do.”
Nassif said he still cannot understand how GW students can go out and have fun after the tragedies. He wonders what is normal and how to get back to routine life. He said he wants to be in New York doing something and helping somewhere.
A sign of hope appeared at Nassif’s last clinical rotation at the GW Hospital when he helped deliver a baby.
“(The attacks) tore us apart, but the world will come together,” he said.