There are many heroes associated with the Harrow and Wealdstone rail crash of 1952. Many medics, rail staff, passers-by and passengers stepped forward to offer any help they could in what turned out to be the worst peacetime rail accident in British history.
And none more so than Lieutenant Abbie Sweetwine, a black American nurse who became known as 'The Angel of Platform 6'.
Sweetwine, a nurse with the US Air Force 494th Medical Group, based at RAF Northolt rushed to the disaster site along with the rest of her unit which consisted of seven doctors.
On arrival, what they saw was a scene of total and utter carnage. In the heavy morning fog on October 8 1952, three trains had collided, killing 112 people and injuring a further 340.
With no time to waste, the team set up a triage station on an undamaged platform and, along with British doctors, began treating the injured.
While doctors concentrated on stabilizing patients before they were transported to hospital, Sweetwine managed the triage process, identifying the most serious cases for immediate treatment, including blood plasma. She also handed out cigarettes, tea, and offered words of comfort to those injured and traumatised.
What set her apart that day, however, was the seemingly simple act of labelling patients with her lipstick; those who’d had morphine were marked with an ‘M’ while those still in need of treatment were marked with an ‘X’. This enabled ambulances and hospital staff to distinguish those who had received treatment, thus avoiding overdoses and expediting care for the most serious cases.
Admittedly, none of these triage concepts were new, but as writer John Bull from London Reconnections put it, “[This event] represented the first time that these concepts, baptized in the fire and horrors of WW2, were publicly used in full force in a civilian setting.”
He goes on to state that this lesson wasn’t lost on Britain’s health and emergency services, “…it marked the point at which the British medical establishment acknowledged that focusing solely on getting the victim to hospital as quickly as possible wasn’t the answer. The life-saving work of the American medical team served as clear and demonstrable proof that ambulances shouldn’t just be about ‘scoop and run’ – there was a time and a need for ‘stay and play’.”
And while there’s no doubt that Sweetwine’s actions, expertise and professionalism saved countless lives on that tragic day in October, perhaps what’s even more important is that her involvement served to undermine racist notions that black, and indeed non-white people in general were any less capable at succeeding in demanding jobs.
She retired at the rank of Major and died on March 7 2009, aged 87.
Air Force Medical Service Art, Photo by: AFSG Public Affairs - History Remembers Lt Abbie Sweetwine, 'The Angel of Platform 6'
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