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Professionalism and calm at the eye of the storm

After she'd helped a man who had been shot three times into a wheelchair, after an SUV had delivered another shooting victim and two more men had walked past with bloodied T-shirts covering their wounds, nurse Cindy Barber began to wonder just what was unfolding in the Johns Hopkins emergency room.

"Are there more coming?" she asked herself. "Is someone still after them, and are they going to come here?"

Ambulances soon arrived with more patients, and by the end of Barber's July 26 overnight shift, police, paramedics, nurses and doctors had scrambled to treat 18 people shot during the bloodiest five hours that any of the first responders could remember in Baltimore.

The night of violence, much of it concentrated in East Baltimore and precipitated by a yearlong feud between two families that police believe to be prominent players in the city's drug trade, brought many of those victims to the emergency room at nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital, where the swinging doors are marked with a sign: "Stop Shooting, Start Living."

The victims - 12 were at one cookout - were crammed into already-full emergency rooms. The paramedics raced from call to call, and the witnesses overwhelmed police interview rooms. Two young men died. But the outcome could have been much worse, as Mayor Sheila Dixon would say later.

'He got shot' The first 911 call came in at 8:58 p.m. The caller was frantic, but the call itself was routine.

"He got shot. He got shot," the woman screamed to a 911 operator.

The caller's words were a blur, the street number garbled. But even as the woman talked, the operator was sending a signal to a dispatcher with the address on Ashland that showed up on caller ID.

At the Oldtown Fire Station on Hillen Street, paramedic Sherille Jones had just backed Medic 7 into its bay and turned off the ignition. Her partner, Heather Franklin, was about to close the garage door when Jones yelled out, "We're getting a run."

It was still 8:58 as Jones pulled out of Oldtown, lights and siren on, even as the dispatcher called out their assignment: "Engine 51, Medic 7, respond ... North Lakewood Avenue and Ashland Avenue for the shooting."

Jones turned right onto Monument and left onto Caroline. Franklin was reading the computer screen in the cab and could see what the dispatcher was typing.

Someone had already loaded their patient into a car and sped off to a hospital.

But the calls to 911 kept coming. More people had been shot.

The two paramedics had no idea they were driving to a street where, moments before, revelers had been grilling burgers and listening to a DJ spin records. Now it was packed with hundreds of people. Some were running to see what had happened; others were trying to escape or screaming for help for their wounded friends.

A chaotic crime sceneThe ambulance reached Ashland at 9:03 p.m. Franklin and Jones blew the air horn to break through the crowd that filled the street. Police were frantically pushing people out while at the same time trying to sort through victims, bystanders and maybe even gunmen. Detectives were desperately trying to mark and count piles of spent shell casings and preserve a trampled crime scene that quickly grew from the back alley cookout to six square blocks.

Franklin yelled into her mic to make herself heard over the screaming in the street: "I have one patient shot in the arm, one patient shot in the leg, another patient shot in the leg. We don't know the status of the fourth."

Her words were deliberate, but her urgency apparent. She interrupted her dispatcher as the casualty count climbed.

"Make that five patients," she said.

Later, as the paramedic recalled the dizzying night, she remembered the surging crowd and learning that the shooting had occurred at 2630 Ashland, across the street from where she had parked the ambulance.

"I had three victims in the back of the house, four in the front," she recalled. "I had people screaming at me, 'You have to help this person, you have to help that person.' It's very difficult to organize your thoughts."

Other paramedics sensed her dilemma.

"I'm right downtown if you want me to roll on the multiple shooting," from Medic 5.

"I'm clear, I can go," from Medic 2.

About 20 blocks away, Barber was at the triage desk near Hopkins' emergency room entrance, where she was dealing with the usual kinds of cases - people with chest pains, stomach aches, heroin overdoses.

She overheard the squawk from a police radio at a security desk. The nurse understood only bits and pieces, but enough to know that a shooting victim was headed toward Hopkins.

Barber had time to grab latex gloves and step into the ambulance bay after a small black car pulled up with a young man screaming. He'd been hit by three bullets. The nurse lifted him into a wheelchair and rolled him through the glass doors, then through another set of swinging doors and into Critical Care Room 2.

About the same time, the black SUV arrived with another wounded man. Then two men came in with bullet wounds, their arms wrapped in bloody T-shirts. Yet another walked in with a stab wound to the chest.

Barber worked to get people help while charge nurse Shannon Bechy talked on the radio with Franklin, the paramedic, who was immersed in the chaos on Ashland. Franklin said she was sending more ambulances to Hopkins, and Bechy told her no.

All 22 beds in emergency were filled, as were three trauma bays. She could squeeze in one more, she said, but that's it.

What the paramedic didn't know then was that a dozen people had been shot on Ashland and she had only seen a handful of the victims. Five had already left, by car or on foot, to find their own way to get help.

The wounded came to Hopkins anyway, by ambulance, private car and on foot. Within 40 minutes, doctors and nurses were scrambling to treat eight new trauma patients, six with serious wounds, two with shots to arms and legs. Among them was a pregnant woman, in contractions, who would later give birth.

Barber had never before seen so many people with such injuries in so short a time. Nurses set up an impromptu intensive-care unit in a room that could hold four beds so that fewer staff members could watch over them, leaving others free to help.

Remarkably, nobody needed surgery. Hopkins' director of adult trauma, who was the on-call surgeon that night, spent 90 minutes assessing patients, then retreated to finish paperwork.

But outside the emergency room's double doors, it was far from quiet. A crowd grew, spilling into Monument Street with friends of the injured, wives, children, cousins and gang members, angry, grieving and tired, clamoring to know how the wounded were doing.

"Nobody could walk in and nobody could walk out," Bechy recalled. The charge nurse could see but couldn't reach a paramedic to tell him where to take his patient, and finally she asked officers to push the crowd back and put others in a waiting area. About that time, paramedic Lenore Festerman arrived in Medic 16 with a 14-year-old boy suffering a severe asthma attack after playing in Patterson Park.

The paramedic had to blow her air horn to squeeze the ambulance through the dense crowd and into a bay. By then, police had put up crime scene tape.

"We had to tear down the tape to get to the ramp," Festerman said. Finally, her patient safely in doctors' hands, she was dispatched to Ashland. There was one more patient with a gunshot wound.

Festerman and her partner rushed to the scene and straight into chaos. They got to Ashland and Lakewood, but the man who had been shot twice in the right arm had run two blocks north, where he'd tripped, dislocated his shoulder and broken his clavicle. Police made Festerman push her stretcher two blocks to reach the man and then two blocks back to the ambulance, an officer escorting her every step.

"Nothing was smooth and nothing was safe," the paramedic said.

Festerman and her partner took the man to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, but she hadn't had a chance to finish her paperwork before they were called out again: Two men had just been shot on Fayette and Conkling streets.

It was now 10:15 p.m.

The officers rushing from Ashland to Fayette included a deputy commissioner who saw a man trying to break through the police tape and put him in handcuffs. On the front seat of his car, the deputy commissioner found a loaded .44-caliber pistol.

The man had taken a gun to a crime scene filled with cops, all while Festerman and her partner were trying to save the lives of young men 18 and 19 years old. Both teens died, one at Bayview, the other at Shock Trauma, the only deaths from the night of gunfire, and two shootings that police later said were not related to what had happened on Ashland Avenue.

The white LexusDonny Moses left the Fayette Street scene shortly before midnight. The former narcotics detective and now police spokesman had finished briefing the news media and was on his way home, finally.

He was northbound on Washington Street in his personal Jeep, his police radio turned off and hip-hop music blasting from the stereo speakers, when a white Lexus with its passenger door hanging open sped past him. Its wheels screeched as the female driver turned sharply onto Madison Street.

"It rolled up on my driver's side, and it actually made me nervous because it was flying so fast," Moses said. "I thought to myself, 'I need to catch up with that.' "

Moses drove on a parallel street, never topping 40 miles per hour, hoping to cut off the Lexus at an intersection. The driver turned onto Broadway and then Monument and skidded to a stop at Hopkins' emergency room entrance, where Barber was catching her breath.

The luxury car had a dented front end, a shattered window and eight bullet holes in the passenger door. The man inside had been shot in the temple and his left eye was pushed from its socket. As he was being taken to critical care, he kept saying, "Get me to the emergency room."

Barber finished her 12-hour shift at 7:30 that morning. As the nurse left the hospital, she noticed that the white Lexus was still at the curb.

It seemed as good a symbol as any for why, despite what she'd been through that night, she chose this work. She couldn't imagine doing anything else.

"You never know what's going to come in the door," she said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.

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