AFMS History Office
/ Published February 03, 2016
Lt. Abbie Sweetwine, "Angel of Platform 6"
In recognition of African-American History Month the AFMS is featuring a matriarch of change and an Air Force Nurse, 2nd Lt. Abbie Sweetwine, who became a heroine and “The Angel of Platform 6”.
On the morning of Oct. 8, 1952, the country of England suffered the worst train wreck in its history. Three trains collided in the Harrow and Wealdstone station causing 112 deaths and injuring more than 300 people. Among the nearly 100 Air Force personnel who responded to a call for help was a group of eight medics from the nearby 494th Medical Group at Royal Air Force (RAF) South Ruslip, composed of seven doctors and one nurse – 2nd Lt. Abbie Sweetwine.
The scene that greeted the American medics was one of chaos. Iron tracks, train cars, bits of wooden platforms, and people had been thrown into a twisted heap. The initial ambulances to reach the disaster area had evacuated whichever victims could get to their vehicles first. These, for the most part, were the “walking wounded,” and the less severe casualties, which left the more seriously injured, lying in the train station.
The Air Force medics filled their ambulance with every item of conceivable use—including life-saving plasma. Upon arrival the team set up a triage station on an undamaged platform, and, along with British doctors, began treating the injured, stabilizing many before their transport to nearby hospitals.
As doctors concentrated on treating the injured, Sweetwine managed the triage process, identifying the most serious cases for immediate treatment. She also handed out cigarettes, tea, and words of encouragement to the injured and traumatized victims.
What set her apart this day was the seemingly simple act of labeling patients, who had received treatment or morphine.With a tube of lipstick from her pocket, she marked an “M” for morphine or an “X” indicating treatment on the foreheads of the injured. This enabled ambulances and hospital staff to distinguish those who had received treatment, thus avoiding overdoses and expediting care for the most serious cases.
The British newspaper, the Daily Mirror, stated, “[Sweetwine] was the heroine of the 150 [other reports put the number under 100] U.S. doctors and medical staff who moved in as a slick, highly efficient battle unit to the scene of their ally's peacetime disaster.” Her actions earned her the nickname, “The Angel of Platform 6”.
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 on that October day 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’.”
Retired Maj. Abbie Sweetwine, born on May 28, 1915, was an African-American Nurse who served in the United States Army and Air Force dedicating over twenty years of service to her country, retiring in 1969. She was a native Floridian from Cocoa, Florida. She passed away March 7, 2009, at 87 years old. Maj. Sweetwine was laid to rest at Arlington Virginia National Cemetery.
You can see a glimpse of Lt. Sweetwine in the MovieTone newsreel at (seen at 1:10 in this video).