Remembering Colgan Air Flight 3407: a medical responder’s story

Fifteen years later and I can still see it.

I wasn’t able to go to the scene that night, but several of my colleagues did. As morning broke, a new shift of my colleagues went to the scene. And on the next morning, I did. We were there to provide medical support to the hundreds of investigators, evidence collectors, workers, and firemen who were helping with the scene. We were working on a plane crash.

As I arrived, I thought it would be bigger. Larger, somehow. I walked down the street and kept trying to see it. Sure, there was a line of emergency vehicles parked on the street, but still, where was the actual scene? As I tried to figure out where I was going, I spotted one of our emergency response trailers, so I kept walking up the street. And, suddenly, there it was.

And there I was, in the midst of the scene, seeing it all: the house debris, the plane’s tail up against a bright blue sky, the burnt fuselage still smoking despite the frozen water on it, suitcases – some burnt, some with intact clothing like a new package of socks that someone had with them on the trip, and the flashing lights of so many law enforcement vehicles.

They had not been able to begin the real work the day before because hot spots were still being put out. Suddenly, I saw the potential dangers for the workers: large and small twisted pieces of metal, pieces of wood with nails, sinkholes, cinder blocks that could trip someone, etc. We made arrangements to be able to administer tetanus shots. We checked our suture materials. We made sure we would be able to arrange for follow-up.

I spent the first part of my morning surrounded by the team from the medical examiner’s office, and I heard all of their plans for the day. I spent time in their tent. I watched their work. I saw the sketches, the near-empty yet not empty body bags being brought to the makeshift morgue, and the flags — so many flags — scattered around the debris field and in groups within the footprint of the plane.

I met members of the FBI and local law enforcement. I listened to NTSB and FAA officials as they collected their evidence. DEA and ATF officials were there, making sure this wasn’t a terrorist act. Everyone wanted to talk. Everyone wanted to share their thoughts. Everyone wanted to do more. Everyone was solemn as another flag was placed, and another bag was removed and brought through the debris field to the ME’s tent.

I was there as EMS personnel support, but I also watched a group of people come together and do what they did best for a common somber goal. I watched their painstaking work. I watched the respect with which each victim was handled. Suddenly, I felt the enormity of the situation. And the scene didn’t seem so small after all.

In memory of Colgan Air Flight 3407, 02-12-2009, and the 51 souls lost.

Veronica Bonales is an emergency physician.

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