On an August evening in 1987, a plane schedule to depart from the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport crashed on takeoff, causing the deadliest sole-survivor aviation accident in history. Emergency physician Bradford L. Walters, MD, FACEP, was one of the first responders to the crash and participated in a search for survivors and efforts to identify the victims. Few emergency physicians will face a disaster of this magnitude in their careers, and no amount of training or planning can prepare you for the reality of being a first responder. Dr. Walters recently sat down with ACEP Now Medical Editor-in-Chief Kevin Klauer, DO, EJD, FACEP, to talk about his experience and the lessons he’s applied to his emergency medicine practice.
Explore This IssueACEP Now: Vol 34 – No 04 – April 2015
KK: Tell us about the crash.
BW: This was the Northwest Airlines Flight 255 that, unfortunately, lost control upon takeoff on August 16, 1987, around 9 p.m. (Detroit). The plane lost control, banked to the left, and hit a parking structure at the edge of the airport, crashing on a four-lane, heavily traveled street.
KK: Do you remember what type of aircraft it was?
BW: This was a McDonnell Douglas MD-82 (an earlier version of today’s MD-88). It had 149 passengers and six crew. One 4-year-old young lady by the name of Cecilia, was the sole survivor. The captain was John Maus and the first officer was David Dodds. I was one of the physicians who participated in the formal autopsy onsite of both the captain and the first officer.
“I’m an emergency physician. We don’t hesitate. We don’t pause. We set those things aside and we process them later.”
—Bradford L. Walters, MD
KK: You were involved in the federal National Disaster Medical System (NDMS). Were you just happening by the accident, or were you notified and responding?
BW: Neither. I happened to be at home. I saw the news event. I said, “They might need help and, in addition, this might be a chance to learn from Wayne County’s NDMS or whoever’s responding to this mass disaster.” So, I identified myself to a police officer there. I expected he was going to say, “No, I understand what you’re saying, but the area is closed off and you can’t get through,” and I’d turn around and go home, saying “I’d tried my best.”
KK: Are you that guy who drives around with an EMS bag, a cric kit, rib spreaders, and a defibrillator in your trunk?
BW: Wait, wait, wait, you also have to say that now I also carry a glidescope. I am that guy, but at the same time, I’m an emergency physician. You know that famous line from 9/11: When everyone was running out, the first responders, the emergency medical teams were running in.
KK: Did you have a blue light on top of your car or on your dashboard?
BW: I did not. I draw the line there.
KK: Back to the story…
BW: The police had stopped traffic and I just walked up to the officer and identified myself as an emergency physician as part of the NDMS team. He said, “Come with me,” and put me in a car with a deputy. They drove me to the site and told me they would take care of my car.
KK: As you were approaching, what is the first sight at the crash that you really remember?
BW: It’s really a surreal thing, but my first impression was the smell. There was a combination of the kerosene smell of jet fuel; the plane burst into flames, so you smelled the smoke and char; and then there was that smell of burned and dead flesh.
KK: Did you consider not participating at that point, or pausing?
BW: No, never thought of pausing. I’m an emergency physician. We don’t hesitate. We don’t pause. We set those things aside, and we process them later.
KK: What was your first sight?
BW: It’s multi-sensorial because there were these huge klieg lights. There were these huge spotlights illuminating the scene, but also the red on-and-off lights of all the EMS vehicles and fire trucks. Quite a bit of smoke was in the air. They had just finished putting out the last of the fires, and there were all these objects. You could see the difference between the angular pieces of fuselage and softer shapes. I realized these were body parts. I was not prepared for the magnitude of that.