When the fireball and debris from two aircraft cut through about 500 soldiers at Green Ramp in 1994, the unthinkable happened.
The blaze charred the flesh and uniforms of those unlucky enough to be in its path. Debris amputated limbs. The heat caused 20 mm ammunition to explode, sending bullets and shrapnel into the chaos.
But in the midst of a tragedy that killed 24 soldiers and injured more than 100 others -- mostly from the 82nd Airborne Division -- something happened that was nothing short of extraordinary.
Soldiers, airmen and civilians banded together to save as many soldiers as they could, officials said. They charged into the flames, putting out burning paratroopers with their bare hands. They piled the wounded onto the backs of trucks and into motorcycle sidecars to carry them the short distance to Womack Army Medical Center.
Twenty-three years after the Green Ramp disaster, leaders at the Fort Bragg hospital looked back on that response as part of a professional development event titled "Lessons to Never Forget."
Nearly 300 soldiers, airmen and civilians attended the day-long retrospective at the Iron Mike Conference and Catering Center. They heard from survivors of the March 23, 1994, disaster, as well as current and former hospital employees who shared memories that, in spite of their age, were still fresh in their minds.
Martha Maloy, now deputy chief of business operations for Womack, remembers seeing the black smoke from what was then Pope Air Force Base from her hospital office. She was chief of the hospital's management analysis branch at the time.
Within minutes, Maloy said ambulances were leaving the hospital. And about that same time, a string of non-emergency vehicles began bringing a seemingly endless stream of bodies. The vehicles, mostly trucks, moved so fast that smoke streamed behind them, she said.
Dr. Joe FitzHarris, now medical director of the Hope Mills Medical Home, was chief of the department of family practice at Womack when the disaster occurred.
At first, he was positive the disaster was only a drill -- not real, but practice.
But what FitzHarris found among the injured was no exercise. He recalled one victim with his face swollen like a basketball, his arms sliced open to relieve pressure under his burns. It was a nightmare. But it also was inspiring.
The floor was awash in medical fluids, FitzHarris said. Everywhere, doctors and nurses worked to save lives.
"It really was organized chaos," he said.
Retired Maj. Gen Steve Jones, who commanded Womack at the time of the tragedy, gave a brief not unlike one he gave more than two decades earlier as Fort Bragg coped with the outcomes of the disaster and the waves of political and media attention that followed.
Jones said 45 soldiers were admitted to the hospital within two hours of the crash. By that evening, all the wounded were accounted for.
But the response, he said, was lasting.
"This was not a mass casualty we dealt with in a few hours and then it was over," Jones said.
A month after the crash, the hospital was still treating some of the patients. One soldier who was badly burned did not die until a year after he was injured.
"This was a sustained response," Jones said. "This was a significant event."
Womack officials said the training reinforces their modern mass casualty plans, which are practiced several times a year.
Retired Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, who was the hospital's acting deputy commander at the time, said that in the wake of the disaster the hospital was at its best.
"It was and maybe is our finest moment," he said.
"Were we perfect? Absolutely not," Weightman said. "But a lot of great things happened, and it made the best of a very bad situation."
As the wounded streamed into the hospital, Weightman helped organize the hospital's response.
At first, the hospital only knew there had been a crash and were injuries. The staff didn't know the scope of what was heading their way.
That changed when the first large truck, known as a deuce-and-a-half, arrived.
"It was filled full of screaming, burned soldiers," Weightman said. "I still remember that to this day."
Luckily, Weightman said the hospital was in the middle of a shift change. Nonmedical personnel were sent to retrieve supplies. Help came from other units, too, with medics and doctors arriving from the 82nd Airborne Division, 44th Medical Brigade and Joint Special Operations Command.
As word of the disaster spread, others offered help. Doctors came from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, he said. Patients were sent to Cape Fear Valley Medical Center, Highsmith-Rainey Hospital and UNC Chapel Hill.
"People rose to the occasion," Weightman said. "Faith in the human spirit is restored when you have something like this."
Chaplains roamed among the wounded, according to officials. For those not expected to survive, Army leaders performed emergency medical retirement boards so families would receive greater benefits.
Weightman said officials had to delegate quickly or be overwhelmed. They had to cope with a massive influx of offers of help from elsewhere on post and in the community.
And from the response, the hospital learned to be better, he said. It took steps to improve should a similar event take place.
"It's part of your DNA," Weightman said of the Green Ramp disaster response. "You should not only learn from it, but you should be proud of whatever part you played."
Retired Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the former Army surgeon general and chief nurse of Womack's Emergency Department during the tragedy, said that day remains vivid for many.
"It never leaves you when you experience a mass casualty of this scope," she said.
Horoho said she was impressed by the medical providers and others at the hospital who chipped in to run the halls passing along new information, to gather medical equipment and to keep families and units informed of the condition of their soldiers.
"It was an amazing response," she said.
Weightman said the heroes of that day were at Green Ramp, where soldiers risked their lives to save each other. But Womack, too, should be proud of what it accomplished.
"People stepped up and worked unbelievable hours and did unbelievable things," he said.