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9/11 Memories – Kathryn M. Beasley

Capt. Kathryn M. Beasley, retired, former Navy Nurse Corps officer Capt. Kathryn M. Beasley, retired, former Navy Nurse Corps officer

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Kathy Beasley awoke the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, with a feeling of anticipation and excitement. The now retired Navy captain had just reported into her new job as director of Healthcare Operations at the former National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) – now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland – a only three weeks prior. She was still learning the ropes at one of the nation’s largest military medical centers, she remembers, and each day brought new challenges and new people to learn from.

“I loved being part of the leadership team,” said Beasley, now the director for Health Affairs with the Military Officers Association of America. “Little did anyone in military medicine that day know, was that everything was about to change.”

She still remembers in great detail the feeling the day gave her that morning. “It was one of those days you sensed summer was drawing down and there could be a hint that fall was to come,” Beasley said. “The sky was crystal blue, not a cloud to be had. The grass was still green, and fragrant with the morning dew. The leaves on the trees were starting, ever so slightly, to get brown and some so dry as to be gently falling off with a light breeze. It was such a day where you wanted to be outside and not inside participating in meetings.

The NNMC leadership team, under the leadership of Navy Rear Adm. Kathleen Martin, Beasley recalled, was assembled for a strategic planning discussion. Not long after the meeting started, Martin received a message: A plane had flown into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. While this was noted, Beasley said, no other information was relayed and the meeting continued.

“A very short time later, the command master chief called the admiral out of the meeting,” Beasley said. “She did not return and we got the information another plane had struck the other tower. We immediately stopped the meeting and turned on the television, projected onto a large screen on the wall. The images we saw shocked us. It was the Today show and they had gone over their time slot and the show’s announcers, Katie Couric and Matt Lauer were speechless.”

No sooner than these images had registered in the consciousness of the NNMC leaders, they got the word the Pentagon had been hit. The commander of the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center called to organize the mass causality effort. Beasley said she and the others there did not have time to register the horrors of what was occurring, they focused on their preparation.

“It was perhaps a foreshadowing of events that we had computers, gurneys and patient rooms set up from a week prior,” Beasley said. “Walter Reed had had a generator breakdown and all of their inpatients were transferred over to NNMC until it had been fixed. So we were ready to receive.”

The hospital staff was so professional, she said, but everyone wanted to check on their families, and many wanted to leave to pick up children.

“There was not panic, but a high level of anxiety,” Beasley remembers. “At one point in the day, I looked out front of the hospital and Wisconsin Avenue was bumper to bumper and not moving – everyone in the city was trying to get home. Our base was on the highest alert and we were on lock down.”

The casualties they prepared for never came to Walter Reed or NNMC. Those survivors from the Pentagon were either treated at the scene or sent to hospitals near downtown Washington and Northern Virginia. But the preparation didn’t go to waste.

“Later that day and the next two days, we focused on the deployment orders for USNS Comfort to leave Baltimore harbor en route to New York City,” Beasley said. “The operational platform which staffed the Comfort was from NNMC. I was part of that staff.”

She recalls having very little time to put her affairs in order prior to deploying to Earle, New Jersey, where she and the other NNMC staff boarded the Comfort. They said their good-byes to the NNMC staff and loaded on chartered buses early in the morning in the dark. They didn’t know what to expect, Beasley said, but expected the worse.

“There were no reports on survivors coming in, but there was an expectation that there would be many,” she said. “We were staffing the ship for 200 beds.”

The long solemn line of buses drove up Interstate 95 through Delaware and into New Jersey on a heavily overcast and cool day. They arrived as the Comfort docked, and boarded the gangway to find their quarters. We settled in and went to the galley for lunch. After lunch, with no word of when we would continue the journey to New York, Beasley and several colleagues went up to the upper decks to see what could seen.

“It was now lightly misting and becoming foggy,” Beasley remembers. “In the distance we could make out the tall gray buildings of New York City. A huge smoke-like haze hung low around one of the areas: This was ground zero. It was a surreal site with the mist and haze. Seeing this void left me with such a profound and utterly depressed feeling. It was as if the rain that was now coming down were tears from heaven.”

Beasley and the Comfort never went to New York City that day. Instead, most of the staff were sent back and the Comfort took a small crew to dock in Manhattan, providing rest and hotel services for the crews searching for survivors in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

“Once back to NNMC, we experienced a profound increase operational tempo,” Beasley said, “and a sense that major shifts were underway and things were never the same again.”

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