On December 11, 1990, I was the Chief of EMS for McMinn County, Tennessee. I was at a regional EMS meeting in Chattanooga when virtually everyone's pager alerted within a few seconds of each other. I called my dispatch and was told that we had a probable MCI at the 36 mile marker on I-75 in a large fog bank. I responded with my C-Shift Captain, the late Tony Coe. As we responded up I-75 I saw a rescue unit and a pumper-tanker from my old VFD on the Exit 11 on-ramp. I asked them where they were going. They told me that they were responding mutual aid to the same incident..from 2 counties away. Tony and I looked at each other and asked "How bad does it have to be for mutual aid to be requested from this far away 10 minutes into the incident?"
As we exited the cut atop White Oak Mountain at the Hamilton/Bradley County line, we could see a large, mushroom-shaped black cloud of smoke. It literally looked like a nuclear explosion, except that it was the wrong color. Tony told me "This is going to be the worst call we'll ever work." He was right.
The day was full of horrors - people burning to death trapped in vehicles, so much fire that the fire departments seemed to barely be making a dent in it, fog and smoke so thick that you literally could not see your feet in places, hazardous materials fires and explosions, and dozens of injured people.
Uncommon valor was a common virtue on that day. Dr. Jerry DeVane, then Bradley County's Medical Director was attempting to coordinate triage, but realized that no one could find any patient collection area or even see it. On the spot, he invented what we now call "Blindfold Triage", useful for zero-visibility incidents. Instead of moveing triaged patients to a collection point, he simply triaged patient care reports and directed the patient priorities.
Several McMinn County and Bradley County EMS personnel treated patients trapped in cars that had underridden tractor trailers that were now burning. Rescue personnel from McMInn County, the Athens Fire Department, West Polk Fire-Rescue, Tri-Community VFD, and Cleveland-Bradley County extricated at least 13 of these patients, with no fire suppression possible, and all of the patients survived.
The firefighters - overwhelmed, with no fixed water supply source fought and eventually extinguished all of the fires. The pavement actually burned completely away - to the gravel base.
It was my privilege to later hang the Medal of Valor around the necks of many of my EMTs and Paramedics and the two EMS physicians for their awaesome work, at extreme personal risk, and with success that measured 100% survival for everyone who was not tagged with as a Prioirty 4 at the scene.
It is amazing that the death toll was not much, much higher. The thin red, blue, and orange lines held the line on that day. Strong work, my brothers and sisters. I am still proud of each and everyone of you and what you accomplished despite the danger to your own lives.
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