SILVER SPRING, Md. - Chance put Lt. Junior Grade Victoria Zalewski in the right place at the right time, during last week's deadly Metro train collision. She had just missed the Red Line train from her NOAA Corps office in Silver Spring headed downtown.
The train she got on was struck from behind and she put her NOAA emergency medical training to work. Before rescuers arrived, she was one of the first to reach the injured, perhaps saving lives.
Zalewski says her train had just stopped, when suddenly she felt the hit. The train lurched forward, the lights fell and the seats moved. Moments later a woman came from the back of the train frantic, asking for clothes to use as bandages. Zalewski asked her if it was bad.
"She told me it was really bad, that there were people who were crushed and people who were dead," she recounted.
As a NOAA Corps officer, Zalewski's emergency medical training was meant to treat crews at sea not on the train tracks. She saw people lying on the ground and immediately began to triage. One young woman had deep cuts across her chest, arms and legs, barely holding on.
"She was losing it. She would fade and we would get her to respond and open her eyes, squeeze somebody's hand and respond a little bit but she definitely was in a lot of pain," she says.
Zalewski had help from a former Army medic, who was also a passenger on the train. Together they stabilized the woman, until rescuers arrived. They had no first aid equipment, using clothing for bandages. She got the young woman's first name: Amanda. After rescuers took the woman away on a stretcher,
Zalewski doesn't know what happened.
"I checked the list of those who passed Wednesday morning, when it was reported and I was very concerned, hoping it was none of the four I was able to help. None of them were on the list of names," she was relieved to report. Zalewski's efforts may have saved the woman's life.
There was also an older man, she says with a gash on his head and a back injury. He was worried, she says, about who would care for his mother. Zalewski took out her cell phone and called the man's mother.
She told his mother, she was with him and that he was going to the hospital but would be okay.
It wasn't until later, as firefighters cut into the train, and bits and pieces fell on her that Zalewski looked up at the wreckage. It was then she realized the victims were thrown from the striking train as the car ripped open.
"I knew that being able to be there and help somebody made a difference, even if it was as simple as holding somebody's hand for a really bad moment in their life. It makes a difference," she said.
The day before the crash, Zalewski just renewed her CPR & first aid certification.
In her nearly four years with NOAA, she's never faced a mass casualty like this but when the trains collided last week she was ready.