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Helping to heal: WellSpan employee walked beside Flight 93 responders after 9-11

September 11, 2020

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Alice Hinkle, nurse auditor

Alice Hinkle, nurse auditor

Two days after Sept. 11, 2001, Alice Hinkle drove out to Shanksville, Pa., where a plane hijacked by terrorists had nose-dived into a rural field.

For the next week, Hinkle, a nurse auditor for WellSpan Health, walked beside first responders as they sifted through the dirt, looking for evidence and the remains of the Flight 93 passengers and crew members who went down on the plane in western Pennsylvania.

“I left a piece of my soul at that field,” said Hinkle, who has a long history of working in emergency medicine both at WellSpan and in state roles. “There is a presence out there, the spirit of the people on that plane and the people who went there afterward. We shared the experience of a national tragedy. It is something that I am honored to have been a part of.”

Before her nurse auditor role, Hinkle worked as an emergency medical technician and as an emergency department nurse at WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital. On Sept. 11, 2001, she was the volunteer chairwoman for the Pennsylvania Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team, a statewide group that was developing methods to offer support to emergency personnel after large-scale incidents. She got called to Shanksville because of her position on that statewide committee.

Hinkle and five other members of the state CISM team set up operations in an old race car trailer that had been converted into a mobile office, near a barn that displayed flags representing the home countries of the people who died on Sept. 11.

Nearby was the field with the deep crater that bore the impact of the nose of the plane, which blew apart when it slammed into the ground.

“The fire departments were dispatched for a plane down but when they got there, they said, ‘There is nothing here. Are you sure you gave us the right location?’ “ she recalls hearing.

Hinkle and her team immersed themselves in the crash site.

“We were ready to listen when they were ready to talk,” she said of the first responders, who included agents from the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), as well as local and state police officers, firefighters and emergency medical providers. “We decided we had to go to them, so we went to the different parts of the site and made ourselves available.

“You can’t push people to process their emotions. It’s important to let them know you are there. We listened. We helped them validate their feelings.”

She remembers walking a field with an FBI agent, listening to him talk. She remembers sitting with workers as they sifted through the dirt and found a lipstick tube belonging to someone who was on the plane.

“The tube was scorched but the lipstick was intact,” she said.

“It was an experience I would never want to do again but it was an experience of a lifetime to be able to be a part of something where we could help these tough state troopers, tough FBI agents and tough ATF agents. They did start to open up after about 24 hours – how they felt, their anger. What does this mean for our community? What does this mean for our country? What would I have done if it had been me on that plane? There were a lot of questions. It was a rollercoaster of emotions for everyone who was at that scene.”

After a week in Shanksville, Hinkle returned home to her daughter, who was in fourth grade at the time. Her husband was called up to serve with Pennsylvania Air National Guard shortly after Sept. 11. Both of them were glad to have had the chance to serve their country during those tumultuous weeks and months.

Several years ago, she and her husband decided they were ready to revisit that time and traveled to the national memorial established at the Shanksville site. Hinkle was surprised at how emotional she still felt.

“I was OK until we saw the memorabilia,” she said. “The tube of lipstick was on display.”

“The one thing I did for those people is share a piece of my soul with them and listen when they were ready, to be able to just be there for them and identify how they were feeling and be focused on them.

“I think we helped them realize what they were feeling were normal feelings in response to an abnormal situation. Planes are not supposed to fall out of the sky. What you feel is perfectly OK. Their job was their armor. It protects you for a little bit but at some point, you have to take off your armor and take care of yourself. We wanted to help them do that.”