By Ann McBride
Arizona Daily Wildcat
With a cyclone of sand in the air and an estimated 80 injured on the ground, University Medical Center AIR CARE flight nurse Sue Sorenson-Weekley did not know what to expect when she landed 200 yards from the Amtrak Sunset Limited derailment Oct. 9.
As dawn cast its first shadows of the day on the desert backdrop, the twisted train looked like a movie set, Sorenson-Weekley said.
"It looked very unreal," she said, recalling a scene in which medics brought the injured out of the train cars and under the railroad trestle to an emergency triage area.
She said the scene was "pretty calm," with victims looking "dazed" and a "hush" enveloping the crash scene, located about 60 miles southwest of Phoenix.
The AIR CARE crew, along with other Tucson-area emergency personnel, were honored yesterday at a ceremony at the Rural Metro Fire Department Operation Center, 755 W. Grant Road.
Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., organized the 30-minute outdoor ceremony where he presented a certificate of appreciation to those who helped with the rescue effort.
Besides AIR CARE, others honored included St. Mary's Hospital Life Flight crew, 44 members of Rural Metro and 13 people from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. Seventeen medical personnel attended the ceremony.
While the derailment shows the "dark side of human nature," Kolbe said it also brings out the "good side of human behavior." He said "lives were actually saved" by the efforts of Southern Arizona personnel and they "responded with an answer" in the middle of the night in a remote area.
Sorenson-Weekley, flight nurse Dawn Carey and pilot Ken Simpkins were dispatched to the scene around 3 a.m., and after spending 10 minutes trying to locate the site, landed around 4 a.m.
The AIR CARE crew flew two trips, transporting a total of three patients.
Simpkins did not encounter any problems landing in a sand-lined river bed about 200 yards from the crash. It did, however, create an intense sand storm for the people on the ground, Simpkins said.
AIR CARE flew a woman with back injuries and her uninjured three-month-old son to St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix around 6 a.m.
Following the flight, Simpkins flew to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport for refueling. He returned to St. Joseph's to pick up the crew and landed at the crash site again around 7 a.m.
For its second flight, the crew flew a middle-aged man suffering from back injuries to Tucson's UMC.
The man told Sorenson-Weekley "he was like a human pinball" in his sleeper car at the time the collision occurred.
The experience was a unique and exciting one, but any Air Care pilot could have performed it with equal success, Simpkins said.
Simpkins, who has spent three of his 15 years as a pilot with AIR CARE, said it was a well coordinated statewide effort that exhibited "shared professionalism."
Carey was unable to attend the ceremony.
One man was killed and about 100 injured when eight of 12 cars derailed. The derailment is still under investigation by the FBI.
According to news report, the Sunset Limited had a crew of 20 and 248 passengers aboard when it derailed at approximately 1:20 a.m.
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