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USF alumni return to recount attacks

On Sept. 11, Air Force Col. Robin Davitt found herself in the midst of an American tragedy as she worked at the DiLorenzo TRICARE Health Clinic at the Pentagon.

“I was at my computer and (someone came in) and said ‘We need to go. We need to go. We need to get out of the building,'” Davitt said. “(The tragedy) was just absolutely shocking.”

Davitt and Army Maj. Lorie Brown, who also works at the Pentagon health clinic, presented a lecture Monday at the USF College of Nursing. Both women are USF alumni.

Brown said the moments following impact of the American Airlines jet into the Pentagon were chaotic.

“Within minutes our clinic was full of smoke,” Brown said. “As we got in closer to try and save patients, the smoke was extremely (thick). You could not even see the hand in front of your face.”

Brown said the chaos only increased as evacuations were ordered in response to reports that a second plane was in route.

“It was very, very loud,” she said. “All of the fire trucks, all the secondary explosions (added to the noise).”

The clinic where Davitt and Brown work is heavily reinforced and located underground. Brown said because of this, she did not notice the impact of the jet.

“Our walls are 5 or 6 feet deep,” she said. “We did not feel anything.”

Brown said the Pentagon health clinic is equipped with high tech devices and prepared to handle any medical emergencies within the building.

“We take care of all (medical) services for any needs,” Brown said.

Brown said the size of the Pentagon, which covers 34 acres and has more than 17 miles of corridors, presents some unique challenges in delivering immediate assistance. Because of this, Brown said, the medical team regularly prepares for emergency situations by practicing response techniques on a table-sized model of the Pentagon. Ironically, one of these evaluations included a situation in which a 35-person plane crashed into the building.

“It was very poignant after the event to remember those days,” Brown said.

Brown said the Pentagon was built as a concrete structure in 1941. A new project is underway to reinforce the original structure with steel and shatter-proof windows. This construction began prior to the attack on the wing of the building into which the jet crashed. It was the only wing of the building that had any of the new reinforcement in place, and because of the construction it was only about 30 percent occupied.

Brown said these facts were vital during the attack.

“The three floors above (the impact) collapsed after 40 minutes. Those 40 minutes allowed people to crawl out of the building,” Brown said. “Those windows and construction saved lives.”

Brown said during the attack she and her medical crew worked closely with local fire and rescue units to care for the injured. She said there are lessons to be learned from her team’s response to the attack. Among these lessons was the fact that the medical team often lacked morphine and other drugs needed to treat patients.

“That was a lesson we need to remember,” Brown said. “We were not ready for the number of (burn patients).”

Brown said another unexpected aspect was the psychological trauma suffered by Pentagon employees.

“People (were) just walking around with that lost look and in total shock,” she said. “It took until late in that afternoon to get the chaplains (to the scene).”

The emotional stress continued for several days, Brown said, because of the fact that employees were forced to go back to work while the building continued burning for three days after the attack.

“Just witnessing what they did and then coming back to work the next day (was very difficult),” she said.

Davitt said while there was much tragedy surrounding Sept. 11, the appearance of the American flag while the Pentagon was still on fire was a moving symbol of hope.

“The flag up there in the dark, and the flood lights on the flag was just so very special,” Davitt said. Kathy MacDaniel, a Moffitt Cancer Center employee, attended the presentation. She said she was impressed with what she heard.

“I’m in awe,” she said. “I knew Colonel Davitt for two years in the (emergency room), and I lost track of her. I was shocked to hear she was in the Pentagon. I’m impressed with what she’s done with her career in nursing.”

MacDaniel said this was the first time she had seen the attack on the Pentagon so graphically depicted.

“You saw everything on the Twin Towers but you didn’t see that much on the Pentagon,” she said. “(The presentation) helped me understand what the devastation was.”

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