What a welcome relief was this story in my local paper, about an Air Force officer who stepped in to handle a critical situation, and who sought no accolades for her actions. It took some time to actually determine her identity, and I'll get to that. But first, what happened and what she did:
Bad day on highway? Call in the Air Force
Monday was a day of bad wrecks in North Charleston, but there was at least one angel wearing Air Force wings. She also was in full-speed running mode.
An unidentified Air Force officer helped clear more than a mile of stopped traffic on the Don Holt Bridge so an ambulance could get to the scene of an 18-wheeler wreck. (Photo by Peter Waters)
Then she left as suddenly as she came, without leaving a name. However, the image of that officer clearing cars, one by one, at a time when no one else was doing much, stayed with witness Peter Waters of Mount Pleasant.
"Everyone was sitting in their cars with no clue what to do," said Waters, who was among the hundreds of drivers stuck for hours during the morning rush. People did nothing even as the ambulance's lights and sirens flashed and blew, he said, trying to get through clogged lanes.
But things changed once the officer stepped forward.
"One by one, she directed each individual driver to move their car" so that the ambulance could gain a few feet, Waters said.
By prompting each car to inch into a more strategic spot, she opened a path until the ambulance finally made it to the scene, he said.
"Basically in about 10 to 15 minutes she cleared a mile of traffic," said Waters, who served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
What was equally impressive, he said, was that once the ambulance got through all those cars, the officer turned and went all the way back to her car at a full run.
Wow - good for her! That is mighty impressive, but even more so when you read on:
"As she jogged by me, I held out my hand, said 'great job.' She said, thank you, and went jogging on back to her car," Waters said.
"I just thought it was pretty impressive that she did it," Waters said.
Even more impressive was that she did her run in full uniform, including blue pants, short-sleeve shirt and black standard military dress shoes.
Dang. How'd she do it? Judging from the photo, pretty easily, it seems.
Just to fill in the details, this is what happened to cause the accident in the first place:
The wreck was part of a string of collisions Monday that produced North Area gridlock. The first reports came from the Interstate 26 construction zone. Wrecks there caused a traffic backup nearly eight miles long involving at least three wrecks and 11 cars in the eastbound lanes of I-26, near Remount Road.
The other bad site was a three-car wreck that took place in the eastbound lanes of the Mark Clark Expressway at the Don Holt Bridge. That wreck had eastbound traffic stopped.
The driver of the 18-wheeler, who was assisted by the Air Force officer's deeds, became involved as he was traveling in the outside and westbound lane of the Mark Clark. He wrecked after slamming on his brakes to avoid rear ending several vehicles stopped in front of him watching the wreck on the other side, police said.
The truck driver was thrown from the cab of the vehicle and landed in the outside "eastbound" lane. Authorities think the fact that traffic was stopped in the eastbound lanes probably saved the truck driver's life. He was treated for non-life threatening injuries. His identification was unavailable.
Waters said Monday that the Air Force officer deserves a lot of individual credit for doing something when most everyone else on Monday sat dumbfounded in their vehicles.
"This is a perfect example of our military at work, doing a job that needed to be done and taking charge when no one asked," he said. "There had to be a couple of thousand people on that bridge and she was the one that stepped up. There are unsung heroes out there every day."
Mighty impressive. She acted like an officer, stepping in where there was a need, and showing real leadership, without wanting any acknowledgment for what she did - helping an ambulance get through to take care of an accident victim.
Well, turns out someone knew who she was, and this headline says a whole lot about her, too, "Captain Says She Did Not Act Alone." Even after they find out who she is, she doesn't want the spotlight totally on her. And here is a little bit about this Captain:
The Air Force captain who calmly took control of a traffic snarl and cleared a path for an ambulance to reach a Don Holt Bridge accident site is a C-17 pilot.
Capt. Kari Fleming is the officer who got out of her car during Monday's morning rush hour and, one by one, prompted a line of halted drivers to move out the way.
Fleming confirmed to The Post and Courier she directed cars at the scene, but she declined to say much more. The Charleston Air Force Base public affairs office later released a statement attributed to her.
"If someone I loved were in the same situation as the gentleman in the accident, I'm sure someone else would have gotten out and done the same thing," she said. "Besides me, there were two civilian gentlemen that also directed traffic."
Fleming is a member of the 15th Airlift Squadron and has served more than six years in the Air Force, including the past four in Charleston. She declined to release any other biographical information, including her age or hometown. But government records indicate Fleming is no stranger to command.
She's a 2003 graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy who by 2008 had amassed more than 1,200 flying hours, including 900 in the C-17 and in combat missions. She also was one of several Air Force members discussed in a 2008 statement to a Senate committee by US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley.
Holy smokes - that is mighty impressive. In case you don't know what a C-17 looks like, here it is:
(Photo by Ned Harris)
They are freakin' HUGE planes - I see them often flying in the skies here, and never get over just how immense they are. Just the other day, while driving toward the airport, queried how in the world these planes stay up. Amazing. As is the rest of the story:
"Her missions have included, not only delivery of equipment and cargo, but aeromedical evacuation for a fallen airmen (sic) and operational airdrops. I was having a chat with her the other day and I asked her the last time she landed a big airplane in the dirt, and she says she's done that quite often, landing it on dirt roads and riverbeds. So sir, that's Capt. Kari Fleming, from Charleston Air Force Base."
During Monday's string of North Area traffic accidents, Fleming cleared about a mile of traffic in about 15 minutes. Afterward, she jogged back to her car, dressed in her Air Force blue uniform and shoes.
The driver of the 18-wheeler involved in the wreck, Stephen Fratwell of North Charleston, was treated at the scene for non-life-threatening injuries after being ejected from his rig.
This story does my heart good. An officer who does what needs to be done without being asked, and when identified, shares the spotlight, not wanting it to reflect upon her alone. How refreshing from what we have been experiencing so much of recently - people demanding the spotlight, taking others policies to get the spotlight, saying outlandish things to have the light turned on them. But not Captain Fleming. Not only does she fly a massive airplane, cool in and of itself, and has gone on all kinds of missions, but she dealt with a situation with calm, courtesy, and efficiency, running back a mile to her car in her dress shoes, which couldn't have been comfortable.
Like I said above, what an impressive person. And what a nice change of pace. Job well done, Captain Fleming!
Update on Captain Fleming HERE (and photo credit).