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One C-130 crew forced to head home without evacuees

September 05, 2005|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

daniels@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - It was increduluous, and while Maj. Norman "Doug" Douglas understood on one level why, for the moment he was unable to believe he had to turn his back on so many suffering, dazed, weary souls.

"I don't know what happened, I really don't know what happened," he said Saturday. "I really don't know what happened."

As night fell upon Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, a dour-faced Aircraft Commander Stuart Brown boarded the C-130 and called his crew together, not letting on what he knew until all were within earshot.

"Without air meds on board, they will not allow us to take patients ... and Charleston is not equipped to keep folks overnight," Brown began.

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Brown and members of the 167th Airlift Wing of the West Virginia Air National Guard took off from their base at the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport at about 9:30 a.m., and after a stop at Yeager Field in Charleston, W.Va., arrived at Naval Air Station New Orleans at 4 p.m., expecting to pick up evacuees to take them back to Charleston for processing and on to Fort Dawson near Morgantown, W.Va., for lodging.

At the Navy station, however, they were told the evacuees were at the New Orleans airport, so they unloaded the supplies they had carried from West Virginia, including bottles of water and military food rations, and made the 11-mile flight to the airport by 7 p.m.

"I think, emotionally, it's going to be an overwhelming experience for everybody to do, I only wish I could do more," said co-pilot Jesse Seibert as he waited for news. "Why do I do this? As you'll soon see, once we have those passengers; it's all about them. It's about doing for other people, it's not about doing for yourself."

As they waited for word, information trickled in. First, they learned about the air-meds restriction.

The crew did not have an air medical evaluation team on board, and therefore would not be permitted to carry any patients from New Orleans to hospitals in West Virginia. The regulation did not sit well with the crew since Douglas and Capt. Jason Turley, medics from the 130th Airlift Wing of the West Virginia Air National Guard, were prepared to take care of patients.

"These guys are probably more than capable of it, but it's against regulations," said Ryan Day, crewman with the 167th.

"In situations like this, they ought to take the regulations and (ignore them)," Douglas said.

The crew was also up against a narrowing time window. By regulations, the crew was permitted to log an 18-hour crew day, and that would take them until 12:30 a.m.

Some members of the crew were invited to look in on several hundred evacuees being lodged inside the baggage terminal at the airport, taken on the tour by San Antonio medic Rodney Crista, with a deployment from Lackland Air Base.

As the crew peered across the terminal, filled with bodies and faces of despair, Crista said there were four other staging areas at the airport with similar scenes.

"Theres only so much any of us can do," Crista said.

Crista arrived in New Orleans on Aug 31, and said he had seen the worst of it as the baggage area was used as a morgue.

"Not numb. Numb isn't the right word ..." said Crista, 37. "It screws with your mind. If I was to tell my wife some of the things I've seen, I think she'd look at me differently."

It was 8:24 p.m. as Brown addressed the crew.

"I hate to take off empty, but if we don't take off empty, we're going to screw it up for tommorow," Brown told the men. "We're going to get the plane going so we can get it back to try for another day."

Two crews took off Sunday from Martinsburg for the New Orleans airport, base officials said.

Still, it stung, particularly for Douglas, who cancelled a motorcycle trip this weekend to fly on the mission.

"This is history in the making, and we're making a part of history," Douglas said. "This is what the 130th is all about; supporting West Virginia, supporting the Air Force, supporting our entire military fleets."

As they flew back without evacuees, Douglas found perspective on the situation.

"After 24 years in the military, nothing amazes me," he said. "It's just part of it; tomorrow's another day."

See "Images of the aftermath", a collection of photos taken by Herald-Mail Staff Photographer RIc Dugan for this story in our Photo Gallery.

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