WASHINGTON – They were strangers when Sept. 11, 2001, dawned over the Pentagon. But within hours, two lives intersected amid tragedy and chaos and a bond was forged that will never be broken.
Racquel Kelley, then a new mom from D.C., didn’t know about the attack on the World Trade Center until after she arrived at her civilian job at the Defense Department. She was at her desk when she heard a loud boom, and everything started to shake.
“I was pretty close to where the plane came in,” she says, “It hit 700 feet from my office.”
Kelley passed out. And when she came to, she prayed. A dozen years later, the words keep coming back, “OK God, I just had this baby. We have to work something out. I can’t die.”
She crawled out from under her desk and a pile of rubble fell on her. Coworkers pulled her out, and they formed a human chain as a security guard led them through the deep gash in the Pentagon wall.
“We climbed over things,” she says. “I remember seeing such things as people sitting in their chairs, holding something, but no head.”
With every breath, she took in smoke and the smell of burnt flesh.
Miles away, paramedic Barbara Brown with MedSTAR Transport could see the smoke from the helipad where a chopper was waiting to take her and a specially trained nurse to the scene.
As they approached the Pentagon, they glanced at each other and mouthed the same words, “Oh my God.”
“There was a lot of chaos, a lot of people running, there was really no structure,” Brown recalls.
But as the minutes ticked away, military and civilian first responders began to work as a team, and military personnel — having heard that the MedSTAR crew had special training and equipment to deal with smoke inhalation — led Brown to Racquel Kelley.
Brown says they told her that Kelley’s airway was closing up, and quick action was needed to save her life.
But by this time, the first responders were beginning to hear radio chatter that a second hijacked plane might be headed for Washington. The MedSTAR chopper crew had to make a decision: Leave, or stay to take care of Kelley and transport her out.
“We didn’t see a plane. We didn’t hear a plane. So we moved forward with what we are trained to do,” says Brown.
Precious minutes were flying by, and so Brown says she opted to insert a tube in Kelley’s airway even before the sedation kicked in, “because that was the one thing that kept her alive.”
In that moment, a bond was formed that Kelley insists “is not going to go away.”
When the crew showed up a few days later at her bedside at Medstar Washington Hospital Center, Kelley stunned them by recalling all the conversation she had heard while the tube was being inserted about the possibility a second plane was on the way.
And while she did not recognize their faces, she says she knew Barbara Brown’s voice.
Brown says she has never been prouder of her role as a first responder. As for Kelley, while her physical scars have healed, the trauma of 9/11 remains.
“It never leaves you,” she sighs. “It never ever leaves you.”
But locked in her mind along with her anxious, frightful memories of that day, there is one positive — the voice of the paramedic who would not leave her.
“A very gentle voice but very concerned,” she says, adding it is something she “will never, ever forget.”