Surgeon Reflects On Treating Sept. 11 Burn Victims Dr. James Jeng, a burn surgeon at Washington Hospital Center, recounts the horrific events of Sept. 11 as part of Tell Me More's series, "Where Were You?" He was on duty when terrorists hijacked and flew American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Jeng and his colleagues treated 10 severely burned victims from the Pentagon.
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Surgeon Reflects On Treating Sept. 11 Burn Victims

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Surgeon Reflects On Treating Sept. 11 Burn Victims

Surgeon Reflects On Treating Sept. 11 Burn Victims

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JACKI LYDEN, host: This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Michel Martin is away.

All week, TELL ME MORE is sharing in our nation's somber observance of the 10th anniversary of terrorist attacks and, in a few minutes, we'll give consideration to whether America has become a police state.

But first, another installment in our series, Where Were You? On September 11th, 2001, a group of Muslim extremists influenced by Osama Bin Laden struck fear in our nation after they hijacked passenger jets from major U.S. airports and flew them into landmarks.

In New York City, it was the World Trade Center; the two towers that were the exclamation point to the skyline. Just outside Washington, it was the Pentagon, the heartbeat of our national defense. Another hijacked plane was forced down in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, a tiny village that now stands for the enormous sacrifice brave passengers made to wrest the plane from the hijackers.

We invited colleagues and listeners to recall the day. Some were among key responders who had a critical role in the aftermath of the attacks.

One of them was James Jeng, a surgeon in the Burn and Trauma Unit of Washington Hospital Center, to which the most critically burned victims at the Pentagon were flown.

The Burn Center's helicopter was the only civilian aircraft excused from the nationwide no-fly precaution.

Dr. JAMES JENG: By the wee hours of September 11th, 2001, my four times a month trauma call at Washington Hospital Center was quieting down and I was happily looking ahead to some sleep after a farewell breakfast for my trauma surgeon partner and buddy, Dr. Anne Rizzo, who was moving across town to take on a new job.

The first inkling that something was very, very wrong came when I heard that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. I blindly thought to myself, hmm, some hapless yahoo lost his life flying into one of the towers in a Cessna.

Then time itself began to unravel, speeding up and slowing down in totally unpredictable swings. All my senses seemed to take on a soft focus and it seemed that I had entered a dream realm, but with the faint stench of horror.

Overhead, code orange. This is not a drill. Then a moment later, a call from the lead trauma nurse. Jeng, get your butt down here. The nation's capital is under attack.

American Airlines Flight 77 slammed into the Pentagon killing 189 people, badly injuring others and severely burning 10. Dr. Rizzo was already in the trauma bay wearing a day-glo orange vest with black block letters. Triage Officer, it read.

Just then, one of the survivors rolled past with his eyes wide open, though he wasn't awake. They had been burned open by the jet fuel inferno. I spent the rest of that day in the operating room surgically stabilizing the two or three most critically injured burns.

I don't remember exactly how long it was before I got home to see my family. I do remember the first time home was just for dinner and to make sure all five of them, the Mrs. and four kids, were OK. We sat around the dinner table and, although there was conversation to calm the children, the real communication was non-verbal. Comfort and solace and reunion, a haven for six hearts beating so fast.

Hurrying back to the ICU after dinner, things are really quiet. It was again the wee hours of the morning. I walked around looking after my flock while the nurses, residents, therapists and the all-critical support staff padded around in hushed tones and full of purpose.

It was a cathedral-like space where the soaring pillars were made of bleeding-edge technology and unimaginable human devotion. This was an inner sanctum while the outside world swirled with international politics, financial Armageddon and preparations for war.

I also don't recall how long I was interred in that 1,000 bed hospital, caring for the Pentagon cohort. I had falling into an automatic rhythm of 36 hours on, 12 hours off in-house duty.

Every other night then, I would get home to be with my family. One month into the evolution, my three oldest children and I went to Camden Yards to see baseball legend Cal Ripken's last major league game in Baltimore.

While standing and singing the National Anthem, I looked all around that capacity crowd and just knew - just knew America would survive this calamity like all those before. At our core, we are simply too kind, too just, too giving, too earnest and too industrious a people to succumb to something as wanton and dark as Jihad.

By Christmastime 2001, we sent the last of the Pentagon attack patients home to celebrate the Nativity with their families.

LYDEN: That was Dr. James Jeng, a burn surgeon at Washington Hospital Center, remembering September 11th, 2001 when he and colleagues treated those severely burned after terrorists flew an airplane into the Pentagon.

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