Dan Hanfling ’92 MD managed a team of rescuers who entered the Pentagon moments after tragedy struck Sept. 11, 2001. Hanfling, an emergency physician, serves as a medical team manager for Virginia Task Force One, part of the National Urban Search and Rescue Response System. The team was established under the Federal Emergency Management Agency to organize response teams to emergency scenarios.
Ahead of the 17th anniversary of 9/11, Hanfling sat down with The Herald to reflect on the horrors of the day “we lost a degree of innocence” and call on the University to uphold “equality, justice and transparency.”
Herald: Will you describe what you do for Virginia Task Force One?
I am an emergency physician and one of the medical team managers on that team.
The responsibilities for the medical team manager are essentially three-fold. One is to provide for the safety and medical oversight and wellbeing of the task force members. The work that we do is pretty dangerous and involves a fair amount of risk. The second responsibility is essentially to the patients who we might encounter in the rescue mission — so we officiate the stabilizing care in conjunction with rescue specialists to put a plan together to safely extricate them from whatever place they might be trapped and then manage and stabilize their care until we can hand them to more definitive management. And then the third responsibility is to more generally support the overarching public health and health care delivery system assessment and evaluation and location of where the great needs might be.
With that job title, what does your day-to-day look like?
I try to sleep until noon — no, just kidding. First of all, the work that my colleagues and I do is not the only thing we do. In my case, I serve as a Special Advisor in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services, working on the National Health Care Preparedness Program. On every given day that means I get in my car and commute like everyone else to my office downtown in Washington, participate in meetings, review policy briefs and try to develop pilot programs and other innovative thoughts and ideas around advancing the capabilities of the health care sector in disaster preparedness and response. I also hold an academic position at the John Hopkins Center for Health Security and chair the National Academy of Sciences Forum on Medical and Public Health Preparedness.
So I have a very varied schedule, and then on top of that I have these responsibilities. The medical component of our task force meets once a month for a training. The whole team meets twice a year, and at one of those meetings, we do some sort of full-scale exercise where we practice the work that we do. Recently, we conducted a full-scale exercise on the ground of a hypothetical earthquake.
What I’ve tried to articulate for you is that this work is ongoing, but it doesn’t necessarily require everyday participation. We have an awareness, alert and activation status. I have all my gear ready to go and at a moment’s notice, we are given somewhere between four and six hours to assemble at our warehouse where we have all of our gear, all of our equipment and trucks that are packed and ready to go. Then, depending on whether it’s a domestic or international deployment, we either set out by ground convoy — buses or trucks — or in the case of international deployments, we fly to where we have to go.
You are in an intense and risky profession. What inspired you to pursue that career?
I was never too enamored with a desk job. My father was a businessman and he wore suits and traveled on airplanes and went to meetings. It didn’t seem exciting to me, so part of my interest in going into medicine was to do things that were different and varied. That’s what really drew me to emergency medicine.
Do you have family or friends who are nervous when you are deployed?
I have a wife and two kids — one who graduated college, one who is in college. They know that this work is important to me, and they know that I’m doing everything possible not only to take care of my team members but also to take care of myself.
And they understand that this comes with the commitment to service that I feel strongly about, that I think I’ve instilled in my kids. They also recognize that we have a culture of safety. The mantra of our team is “we will be willing to risk a life to save a life,” but beyond that we’re not going to take undue risks when it’s not likely to yield a significant benefit.
If you are comfortable, will you describe the moment when you made the decision to enter the Pentagon 17 years ago?
It was an absolutely beautiful, early September day — at least here in Washington. No humidity, blue skies, not a cloud in the sky, absolutely gorgeous. I was heading to a meeting at the National Reconnaissance Office — Grateful Dead playing loud — to go over some first aid training and what we call safe haven training that they had requested. I got to the National Reconnaissance Office and the gates were closed, and a soldier was standing outside with the biggest machine gun I’d ever seen. He told me to turn my car around, the facility was closed and that the United States of America was under attack. I was like, ‘what are you talking about?’ He goes, ‘if you haven’t turned on your radio, I suggest you turn on your radio. The United States of America is under attack.’
I turned on WTOP and looked at my pager. My pager had 50 messages and I was like ‘oh my god.’
I turned around and made a bee-line to the hospital. Up until that point in time, I thought we would be potentially responding to an overwhelming number of causalities coming from New York City. And then, as I was very briefly overseeing the initiation of our Disaster Preparedness protocol at the hospital, I was told that the Pentagon had been hit, and that our task force was being mobilized, and that we were going down to the Pentagon. The next thing I knew, I was in a vehicle and heading down to liaison with my task force, most of which was already assembled on the buses.
On the grounds of the Pentagon, the first thing we were asked to do by the FBI was to join them in a big walk across the field to look for any pieces of evidence. So we joined them in one walk across the field, and I think some found pieces of the plane. And then we began to set up our operations and not long after noon, some of our guys were already going into the Pentagon.
The first thing I had to deal with was one of our guys who went in and then came out with some smoke inhalation. The one thing that our task force was not prepared for at that time was to go into work in a setting of an active fire. Even though we are firefighters, the task force itself does not necessarily have all of the necessary personal protective equipment required to deal with an active fire. So one of the first things I had to do was manage one of our rescue specialists. I actually ended up sending him back to the hospital for more definitive stabilization and management. To this day, he is sort of angry that I took him out of the fight so early.
I went into the building late that afternoon — maybe four or five — to get a sense of what we were looking at. It was devastating, I mean it was horrible. It was obvious by that point in time that anyone who had survived had already gotten out. You were not going to be finding survivors. We saw people who were killed, either by the collapse itself or by the concussive forces of the explosion and rapid deceleration of the plane into the building, which generated these shock waves that in some cases killed people just sitting in their chairs.
Do you think about that day regularly?
I can’t say I think about it regularly, but it’s part of my DNA now. Last year, I spent an afternoon at the Pentagon with a few colleagues from India who we have been working with toward developing an agreement on biosecurity issues. That’s the first time that I’d been there since 9/11, so it definitely brought back a flood of memories. I can’t say I think about it every day, but I guess a small part of me remembers it all the time.
Would you say that anything that you did at the University prepared you for 9/11 or for what you do now?
The fact that I had the tremendous opportunity to study medicine at Brown really set me on my career path. In addition to studying medicine, the faculty was so supportive and encouraging of students to identify their own interests and really pursue their interests. I found emergency medicine to be interesting. I credit the support and encouragement of the faculty for allowing me to pick and choose and do the sorts of things that I continue to do in the present day.
What steps do you hope the University takes to memorialize 9/11?
I think back to being a kid and remembering my grandparents getting a little bit misty-eyed when they talked about Pearl Harbor Day. For us, that was just a day on a calendar. It was a point of historical importance, but beyond that, it didn’t mean anything. My guess is that that is what will happen with 9/11.
I think for the University to honor the importance of that day, it needs to uphold all of the ideals that the University stands for with regards to equality, justice and transparency. To me, that becomes as important as anything else. Of course you want to remember the responders, you want to remember those who lost their lives, but I think the more important thing is to look to the future and make sure we don’t have those kinds of events ever again, and to recognize that some of the root causes that led to that terribly tragic day were born of all sorts of misconceptions and misunderstandings that places like Brown and other institutions of higher education are working to undo and prevent in the future. That, to me, would be the most important lasting legacy.
— This interview has been edited for length and clarity.