September 14, 2001

Tragedies personally affect faculty, staff

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Medical student Laurie Archbald reacts to the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Laurie had already talked to her sister, a pediatrician in New York City, and knew she was safe after the attack. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Tragedies personally affect faculty, staff

Students and faculty watched in disbelief in the lobby of Light Hall as the terrorist attacks were reported on television Tuesday. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Students and faculty watched in disbelief in the lobby of Light Hall as the terrorist attacks were reported on television Tuesday. (photo by Anne Rayner)

Minutes before a plane crashed into the south end of the Pentagon, the plane carrying the Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing Colleen Conway-Welch and pulmonologist Dr. Gordon R. Bernard, professor of Medicine, landed safely at Ronald Reagan National Airport on Tuesday morning.

Conway-Welch said there was no indication that the US Air aircraft was in the midst of any harm. It wasn’t until she was in route to a Society for Women‘s Health Research meeting that she noticed the billowing smoke from the Pentagon.

“We landed just minutes after the plane crashed into the Pentagon,” Conway-Welch said. “I was in the cab on the Virginia side, which is very close to the Pentagon, talking on the phone to my assistant and looked out the window and saw the huge cloud of black smoke.

“We had no idea what was going on. It wasn’t until I reached my destination and our building was evacuated that the reality of this tragedy set in.

“This is ground zero. Although I am not overly nervous, there is definitely an atmosphere of controlled concern.”

During the aftermath of the disasters and still grounded, Conway-Welch was busy talking to federal authorities about the School of Nursing’s plan to develop a collaborative nursing group to include bioterrorism training and education in nursing curricula.

“The events of today have moved our agenda up to high priority,” Conway-Welch said. “We have been waiting for funding and now I think things will move more quickly. It’s a different environment now.”

Conway-Welch has been in discussions with federal agencies for nearly two years to determine the best method to tackle this issue of providing such courses. Although discussions are in initial stages, plans are to create six regional centers of excellence with Vanderbilt as the hub. These sites will focus on mass casualty event education for nurses on all levels including continuing education programs and even citizen information.

Bernard was attending an advisory panel of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the drug Xigris, being marketed by the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly. Bernard, scheduled to attend the meeting in Silver Springs, Md., is the principal investigator for the drug, which will be used to treat sepsis. The FDA advisory panel meeting was cancelled.

On the way to Maryland, 30 miles outside of D.C., Bernard, like thousands of other commuters, was trapped in the gridlock caused by the plane crash at the Pentagon.

“We landed fine and there was no indication that there was a problem,” Bernard said a few hours after landing. “We were in the cab along the Potomac and traffic was at a standstill. You look over and whatever had happened just occurred.

“We turned on the radio to see if the news was reporting anything,” Bernard recalled. “The beltway was literally a parking lot, and of course I had no idea if it was always that way or not.”

Bernard, a safe distance away from the commotion, said everything had been closed. There were no available modes of transportation for him to leave the city.

“There is no telling how long things will be like this. I bet it won’t end today and when it is started up again, what chaos it will cause.”

Bernard was working on plans to return to Nashville via rental car or by boarding a private coach (owned by Eli Lilly) bound to Indianapolis and renting a car for the five-hour trip from there to Nashville.

“I’ve thought about it [terrorist acts] a lot,” he said. “It’s about all I keep thinking. That plane was in the air the same time we were. It is very eerie. Just being that close to the Pentagon and seeing all the smoke pouring out and what I thought were people milling around. That sea of people was probably moving a whole lot faster to get out of that building. I just want to get home safely.”

Dr. C. Wright Pinson, H. William Scott Professor of Surgery, surgical director of the Vanderbilt Transplant Center, and chairman of the Department of Surgery, was not an eyewitness to any of the events of Tuesday, but has a deep personal connection nonetheless. His brother Lex Pinson is a pilot for United Airlines who frequently pilots Flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles. It was that flight that was hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center Tuesday.

Lex Pinson was scheduled to pilot Flight 175 Tuesday, but a scheduling change sent him to Colorado for routine inservice training instead.