I was at Windber Hospital, paying a bill. Or trying to. The receptionist was calling around for the right department to send me to. There was a player piano in the lobby playing what sounded like a dyslexic's attempts to sight-read mediocre classical music. It was getting on both our nerves.
Of course, while she was calling around on my behalf, the receptionist was still answering incoming calls. I got to hear her side of the conversation: "I have no idea. You'd have to call the airport."
She looked at me. "Do I look like a news bureau? I keep getting calls asking why the Johnstown airport is closed."
A doctor poked his head in. "There was a plane crash," he said. Oh. Likely somebody's Cessna went off the end of the runway. They'd have it cleared away soon. A quick prayer for the folks involved. Back to the matter at hand: What department was supposed to get this check?
The receptionist and I were getting really annoyed with that player piano. I went over but couldn't find a way to shut it off. So I unplugged it. The receptionist thanked me, asked if I'd mind if she turned on the radio.
"Go right ahead." She turned on a country music station.
An administrator came in, poking around for a binder, some sort of manual. She was muttering something about needing the right code to announce. There'd been a passenger plane crash. The hospital had been notified to expect mass casualties. She found the binder, leafed through it, gave up. "What's the code?" she was still muttering as she left.
So I guess a commuter flight had gone down at Johnstown, not just somebody's Cessna.
Then the country music was interrupted. Some sort of terrorist attack. A plane had hit the Pentagon, which was in flames. Two planes had hit the World Trade Center towers, which had fallen. Casualties expected to be astronomical, since on a typical day there were over 40,000 people in the towers.
I fell back against the wall.
"Are you okay?" the receptionist asked.
I nodded. The repot said a plane had also gone down near Johnstown. All flights were being diverted to the nearest airport. Fourteen planes were still unaccounted for.
A terrorist attack. The Pentagon on fire. The Twin Towers gone. Planes being blown out of the sky. If they were bringing them down over Johnstown, which is hardly a significant target, they must be bringing them down all over the place. They must be falling like hailstones.
"We're at war," I thought. "Life is never gonna be the same."
I tucked the check under the receptionist's coffee cup. "You can worry about this later," I said. I'm gonna go see what I can do."
She nodded. I found what seemed to be a supervisor telling a nurse to go to a certain wing and start clearing away night stands and chairs to make room for beds that were being brought out of storage.
"Can I help?"
The supervisor nodded. I went with the nurse. We went to what seemed to be a disused but still functional wing. "Somebody's supposed to bring us a key to a storage room," she said.
We paced. An announcement came on, announcing some sort of code for the staff, and for all visitors to report to the lobby, which I did so dutifully. As people trickled in, they wanted to know what was going on. I figured that if they were at the hospital, they had plenty already to worry about, so I didn't say anything about the terror attacks, the Pentagon or the Twin Towers. "There's been a plane crash," I said. "I expect somebody's gonna come and give us instructions."
The administrator came in and announced exactly what I expected to hear: There had been a passenger jet crash nearby. The hospital was expecting mass casualties. Everybody please go back to where you were and just stay out of the way and don't ask questions; the staff will be very busy.
Everybody dispersed. I went back to the disused wing. The nurse was still waiting for the key. I needed something to do or I'd go nuts. I found a phone and a phone book and called the Red Cross and made an appointment to go give plasma. I went back into the hallway. A second nurse approached the nurse I'd been waiting with, whispered something to her.
I took one look at her face and I knew. "We're not getting any casualties. They're setting up a field morgue in Somerset County."
The nurse nodded. I went to the school and found my exchange student and gave her instructions to go to a friend's house. I was a single, unattached, healthy adult. I had to go chip in however I could. She nodded. I headed in to the Red Cross and got hooked up. While they were drawing blood out of one arm, running it through a machine to extract the plasma, and putting it back in through the other arm, I watched the news coverage and was relieved. As horrific as it was, there had been time to evacuate the towers below the points of impact. The deaths would not be, as I feared, in the tens of thousands. Four planes, not the 18 or more I'd originally feared, had gone down.
It was bad. But not as bad as I'd feared.
And I wondered where we'd go from here.
And as I remember and watch the footage of the news as it broke, all I can think of is the responders rushing in, and how many of them would never go home again.
Here's Flight 93 footage. And yes, the emergency response would be immediate because in this area, all the rural emergency services are volunteers who will respond directly to the scene if that is closer than going to the ambulance hall or fire station. It's not unusual at all for EMTs to be at the scene a good ten minutes or more before the ambulance arrives. On one occasion I recall that this led to a call in which somebody had to go fetch the ambulance because all the responders went directly to the scene. (I hope 911 dispatch developed protocols to prevent that from happening again, since the responders all call dispatch and let them know if they're going to the scene or to the hall.)
My brother reports that he and his buddies still find bits of debris in the woods around the crash site as things fall out of the trees with the passage of time.
And in the midst of all the moronic news coverage (people asking the manage of the Johnstown airport, again and again and again and again, if there was a bomb on the plane and how many terrorists there were), SOMEBODY (probably somebody local) had sense enough to do a little research and confirm that there had been no casualties on the ground among the farms, mines, homes, and churches near the crash site.