Haven from fury: Mercy Flight Brings Evacuees to ET,
Gore accompanies about 140 arrivals from New Orleans but declines to take credit
By ROBERT WILSON, email@example.com
September 4, 2005
They saw nature's unmatched fury up close.
Now they would see unbridled human compassion.
About 140 people - mostly elderly and infirm - arrived Saturday at McGhee Tyson Airport on a chartered mercy flight from hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, welcomed to East Tennessee by a bright sun and a host of medical professionals straining at the reins to help their fellow human beings without regard to whether they were on the clock.
The displaced hurricane victims came to Tennessee on a hastily arranged flight, accompanied by doctors and carrying whatever they had in boxes, bags or, in one case, an old suitcase tied up with rope.
Former Vice President Al Gore arranged the flight and was on board, but he declined to take credit for the airlift, fearing it would be "politicized."
The patients and evacuees arrived aboard an American Airlines MD-80 about 3:15 p.m. The unloading process took almost two hours, as some walked hesitantly down a staircase beneath the rear of the aircraft. Others were rolled down a ramp from the front of the plane to waiting wheelchairs. Personnel from Rural/Metro and the Tennessee Air National Guard volunteered their services, as did others, to get the patients and evacuees loaded onto buses or ambulances for the ride to area hospitals to be assessed medically before going to a Red Cross shelter.
On hand to help with the operation were Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale and his wife, Claudia, still decked out in orange from having attended the University of Tennessee football game against Alabama-Birmingham. The county's first couple assisted medical staff in shuttling patients from the ramp to buses.
One of the doctors on board the flight was Dr. Anderson Spickard of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, who said he had a "personal and professional" relationship with Gore.
Spickard said Gore called him about 11 p.m. Friday to ask him to participate in the flight.
"The jet was chartered," he said. "It was a private effort."
Gore chartered the plane, but, Spickard said, "we'll decide who pays for it later."
The doctor said the patients on the plane traveled well and added that he was "pleased" with Knoxville and Knox County's response to the call for help.
The patients, he said, "didn't know what kindness" they would receive here.
Spickard said the plane would leave McGhee Tyson Saturday evening for Dallas, where he would spend the night before making another mercy flight, possibly to Chattanooga, Nashville or Chicago.
The plan had been to make two flights Saturday, Spickard said, but delays in getting to Knoxville meant that the plane could not get back to New Orleans before dark. And there are no landing lights at New Orleans International Airport.
Mayor Ragsdale said he was touched by some of the heart-wrenching stories the people told him as they disembarked from the plane.
One, he said, was a man of 80-plus years who described being on his roof for three days before being rescued. Another was in an attic that almost filled with water. A third was a man who got off the plane barefooted and with obvious skin trauma to his lower legs, who told the mayor of having to stand in water for 2-3 days.
"Some folks are mentally exhausted," he said. And, the mayor said, he has been notified that the Knoxville area can expect as many as 1,500 more evacuees in coming days.
Ragsdale said a meeting was held Friday afternoon - before the mercy flight was announced - that included representatives of his staff and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam's, all area hospitals, Knoxville's Community Development Corporation, Child and Family Services, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Knox County Health Department to come up with a plan to mobilize in case of such an emergency.
"We didn't know this would happen," Ragsdale said. "It is fortunate we had the meeting."
He called Saturday "a very successful day."
Gore chose not to speak to the assembled media, but he was seen in a black T-shirt and jeans moving rapidly from one side of the plane to the other assisting with the off-loading operation.
Forty people aboard the plane were uninjured evacuees, mostly family members of the elderly patients. Two or three children and a dog also were on board.
Participating in the operation were the Knoxville Fire Department, the Blount County Rescue Squad and the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. Cruisers from the Tennessee Highway Patrol escorted the buses to hospitals.
Additional medical personnel within the regional emergency system also were on standby.
Units at the airports included at least 10 ambulances, a phalanx of buses, fire trucks and other equipment.
All those aboard the mercy flight were taken to hospitals for evaluation, including the University of Tennessee Medical Center, St. Mary's, Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, Parkwest, the Baptist Health System, Methodist Medical Center of Oak Ridge, Blount Memorial Hospital, Jefferson Memorial Hospital, Fort Sanders Loudon and Children's Hospital of East Tennessee.
Air National Guard personnel donated their time to help move patients and others to buses and provide liquids, said Capt. Lisa Godsey, public information officer for McGhee Tyson Air National Guard Base. Also coordinating the event was Rebecca Huckaby, public information officer for the airport.
The crew for the plane was made up of volunteers led by Capt. E.W. Evans.
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