WASHINGTON -- In recognition of putting her life in danger to save train crash victims, Tanya Porter was awarded the Secretary of the Army Award for Valor on June 1 by Secretary of the Army, Dr. Mark T. Esper at the Pentagon.
Just before an Amtrak train derailed south of DuPont, Washington, on Dec. 18, Porter started heading home after an overnight shift as a registered nurse at Madigan Army Medical Center. She and her mom even commented on the peaceful sight of the train traveling parallel to them southbound on Interstate I-5.
As soon as they looked away, though, they were swamped by a sea of red taillights and stopped vehicles. The high-speed train had just derailed over the interstate, killing three and injuring more than 60 people. Porter, whose car stopped just three vehicles back from the wreckage, immediately got out to start treating the victims.
"That absolutely didn't surprise me at all, not in the slightest bit. That's what she does; it's in her blood, it's in her heart," said Maj. Parker Hahn, chief of the Madigan Critical Care Nursing Department and a part of Porter's leadership team.
For Porter, her response was truly automatic.
"All I knew was that I was out of my car and traveling to the wreckage," said Porter, who was still in her work scrubs.
Other bystanders saw that her badge said she was a nurse and started bringing injured victims to her to triage.
"I was just amazed she knew exactly what to do," said her mom, Mary Porter. "I really admire the fact that she knew exactly what to do to go out there and just start helping, not thinking about anything, and just helping."
Porter found herself in a mass casualty situation with extremely limited medical supplies. She grabbed a small first aid kit from her car, and then started receiving supplies from other stopped bystanders including gloves, additional first aid kits, and towels.
"It was amazing how many people just brought stuff out of their cars," said Porter, who added that many bystanders also helped care for victims by using towels, blankets and other materials to stop their bleeding.
She found herself directly underneath a wrecked train car that was dangling from the overpass, with five or six injured victims laid out on the ground underneath it.
"The people in the background were yelling at me to come out from over there because there was diesel fuel on the ground and the wreckage hadn't been stabilized yet and it could fall. I saw a gentleman on the ground who was quite injured … and they were telling me to come away from there and I didn't want to leave," she said.
She directed other bystanders to move the victims to safer locations, and then was given a patient who was severely injured with a traumatic brain injury, a neck injury, and a chest wound. She stayed with him until the ambulances showed up, conducting neurological assessments on him, ensuring his airway remained open and otherwise keeping him alive until more help came on scene.
Even after paramedics arrived, the police on the scene asked Porter to triage a few more potentially injured victims on the way back to her vehicle. One baby she evaluated had fallen off the changing table on the train and hit her head on the floor when the train derailed.
"With the TBI training I received here (at Madigan), I knew that with all of the flashing lights and everything, that would be bad for her if she had a TBI, so I gave the mom my sweater because it had a hood and she could put it over the baby's face," said Porter.
Hahn said that Porter's actions after the train crash fit her everyday character.
"She's an amazing nurse, she's an amazing employee, but she's an even better person," he said.
Porter's mom echoed this portrayal of her daughter: "If I could sum up her in one word, she's a genuine person and genuinely cares for people."
Since December, Porter has received recognition by Madigan Commander Col. Michael Place and by Maj. Gen. Barbara Holcomb, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command, and the Chief of the Army Nurse Corps. Now she's being recognized with the highest award in the Army for Civilians who voluntarily risk their personal safety in an act of heroism or sacrifice.
"I'm so overly honored; I just don't have words to express how awesome this is really," Porter said.
She was submitted for the award by Hahn, who immediately recognized the magnitude of Porter's actions in saving the lives of the train victims that day.
"It was the right thing to do; she definitely put her life in danger to save the lives of unknown (people) on her way home from working a 12-hour shift," said Hahn, who added that Porter's high clinical competence was evident in her response.
After the train derailment, Porter heard from many of the victims and their families who recognized her from news interviews and messaged her on social media that she helped to save them. She said that while she is honored by her Army recognition, knowing that she helped save people is what means the most to her.
"To realize there was a person who was dying who is now alive, hopefully because of the help I gave him, that's wonderful. That's better than any accolade," she said.