Nurse recalls 'something terrible' on 9/11
September 6, 2011
FORT RILEY, Kan., Sept. 6, 2011 -- Maj. Jennifer Glidewell left the apple core from her son's breakfast sitting on the kitchen counter because it was the last reminder of a time, less than 20 hours earlier, when the world was "normal."
"I really wanted to throw it away," the Fort Riley nurse practitioner, who was a captain at the time of the 9/11 attacks, said recently. "I really wanted to but I just left it where it was."
It was late evening on Sept. 11, 2001, and Glidewell was standing in the kitchen of her home near Washington, D.C. The Class B uniform she had been wearing as her 4-year-old little boy munched on his before school apple that morning had been replaced by medical scrubs. The blouse, skirt, high heel shoes and nylons of her Class Bs were laying somewhere on the Pentagon grounds, torn to pieces and covered in dirt and blood and fuel.
It was at that moment, as she stood looking at the apple core and wondering where her uniform was, that Glidewell knew that life, much like her destroyed Class B uniform, would never be the same again.
"That day we really saw the best of humanity and the worst," she said recently.
Glidewell's "normal" Sept. 11, 2001, began with a class about how to schedule patients at the Pentagon's DiLorenzo Health Clinic where she was the chief nurse of acute care. In between sessions of the class, Glidewell overheard chatter in the waiting rooms about a plane hitting the World Trade Center in New York but she wasn't sure if she overheard one plane or two.
"All I was thinking was that some poor pilot really screwed up," she said.
A slow morning of training quickly turned into something far different when a lieutenant colonel Glidewell had never seen before appeared in the clinic saying that something terrible had happened and everyone had to get out.
"There was just something about him and the look on his face that made us start moving everyone out," she said. "There were no alarms, no official notification but something just seemed real."
The "something" real was that American Airlines Flight 77 had just crashed into the Pentagon on the opposite side of the building from Glidewell's clinic. The nurse had neither heard nor felt anything when the aircraft punched a 90 foot hole in the side of America's military headquarters.
"Even when I saw everyone running out the door, I still thought it was all part of an exercise," she said. "It never occurred to me that the Pentagon would be a big target (for terrorists)."
Ten years later, the memories of the hours following the order to get out come to Glidewell like snapshots.
She remembers hearing someone say that there was a patient in the Pentagon courtyard and running to see what she could do to help. She remembers seeing that patient emerge from the side of the building where the plane hit with his clothes ripped up and his skin "just hanging off."
She remembers the first time she saw the smoke billowing from the building and realizing that "it wasn't just a drill." She remembers taking charge of the triage in the courtyard. She remembers getting the notification that there was another plane inbound and they had 20 minutes to get everyone out. She remembers getting told just two minutes later that the plane wasn't 20 minutes out, it was 20 miles out.
"We all just looked at each other and said 'well, I guess we just keep working until it gets here,'" she said. "Not a single person left the courtyard."
She remembers her medic asking to go into the burning building to look for survivors. She remembers the three-star Air Force general coming up to her and asking where she needed him to be.
"There was no rank that day," Glidewell said. "There were just people taking care of people."
At the end, she remembers going back into the courtyard and standing among the body bags, still waiting, still hoping that one more person would be brought out alive. No one ever was.
"All we had to go off of was the Oklahoma City bombing where they were still pulling survivors out days later," she said. "We thought the same would be true for us."
Although Glidewell's memories of the day of the attack are mostly dark, there are a few of the snapshots that are lighter. Memories like when she first saw the F-16s patrolling the skies above the Pentagon and when she returned home late on Sept. 11 to find her answering machine full of messages from family, friends and fellow Soldiers, some she hadn't spoken to in years.
"I think we forget how important we are to other people and it may never have occurred to me had I never been privileged to hear those messages," she said.
The 10 years that have passed since a young captain was catapulted into the center of one of the nation's worst mass casualties in history have been full for Glidewell. She went back to school to become a nurse practitioner, deployed with a Special Forces unit to Afghanistan, remarried her ex-husband, and cared for hundreds of Soldiers and Army family members.
"I love taking care of Soldiers and I love taking care of the family members who put up with so much," she said.
When Glidewell reflects on Sept. 11, 2001, the tears still come easily when she thinks about all that was lost that day, not only in the tangible numbers of lives lost but also in the intangible feeling of security she felt living in the "greatest country in the world."
"We all saw a lot that day that nobody should ever have to see but there has been a lot more that people have gone through since then that they shouldn't have ever had to see either," she said. "The naiveté that was there on Sept. 10, 2001, is gone forever and that still makes me sad."
This year, Glidewell will mark the 10th anniversary of the Pentagon attack by "keeping busy." She'll prepare for a conference she has to attend Sept. 12. She'll spend some time with her son, now 14, and her husband. She'll connect to the new Facebook group she is part of that includes many of the men and women who were with her at the Pentagon on the day of the attack.
In the quiet hours of the day, although she hopes there aren't any, she may think of the events of that day, of the 125 people who died at the Pentagon and of the world that existed when her little boy sat down to eat an apple in the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2001.
"I did my job that day and I made a lot of right decisions that just as easily could have been wrong decisions, but that doesn't make me a hero," she said. "The medics who worked for me, though, the 19 and 20-year-old kids who stepped up to the plate to care for the wounded, they were amazing. They are the heroes."