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After surviving 9/11, nursing grad wants to spend her life helping others

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Although at 40, Ruth Tumblin of North Newton was the oldest member of Bethel College’s class of 2010, that in itself doesn’t make her unusual.

Tumblin graduated with a degree in nursing, a second-career (at least) choice for her. Not so strange, either. What’s striking is how she came to choose that career.

Tumblin survived the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in Manhattan – she worked at 5 World Trade Center, a nine-story office building that was part of the WTC complex. And, she says, she believes God helped her escape for a reason – so she could devote her life to helping other people.

“Every day since [Sept. 11, 2001] is a gift,” she says, “and a chance to do something good for someone.”

Ruth Espada graduated from Hesston High School in 1987. Even at that young age, she was actually interested in medicine and entered Mid-America Nazarene University in Olathe on a pre-med track. But her parents divorced and she moved to Massachusetts with her mother. At 18, she was married and at 20, the mother of a son, Roland.

By 2001, following several moves and the end of her own marriage, Tumblin found herself working as a mutual fund networker and IRA researcher for Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, which had offices in the South Tower as well as at 5 World Trade Center.

She remembers, as do so many, that Sept. 11 started out as a beautiful late-summer day, with “the sky so clear and blue.” She dropped Roland off at school and recalls being happy to get to work early at the brokerage firm located on the sixth floor.

She was just getting ready to turn on her computer, she says, when “the building shook and there was a loud explosion sound.

“I turned around to see what could possibly have made such a horrible sound. To my shock, what I saw was people running and big, huge things falling from above. I thought we were having an earthquake and my first impulse was to dive under my desk.

“I’m glad I didn’t – God sent angels right away to my side. My co-worker and I made our way downstairs – we were all being evacuated across the street to the post office area.”

At that point, Tumblin says, she felt like she “was in a horrible nightmare.” She and the others could see flames and “stuff falling all around us” – including people jumping from the Twin Towers. To escape from the complex, they had to pass by dead bodies and witnessed people being killed by falling debris.

“[My co-worker and I] made our way to the park, where we met other co-workers and just grabbed each other and cried,” she says. They also learned that planes had crashed into the Twin Towers. At that point, Tumblin says, “all I wanted to do was make my way to my son’s school to get him so he would not be alone in this hell.”

She and the others had to decide whether to go uptown or toward the Brooklyn Bridge, knowing they needed to get out of mid-town Manhattan. “We decided to head uptown. At Times Square, we went our separate ways – I kept going uptown to get my son and they headed back toward the Brooklyn Bridge. A woman – an angel, I would say – came with me until we made it to 145th Street. By this time, the trains had stopped – everything seemed to stop. It seemed as if the whole world went silent.

“A man in a small car – another angel, I would say – stopped and asked us where we needed to go. She said we needed to get to the hospital on 168th Street [New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Hospital complex]. Once we made it to the hospital, I felt better, because directly across the street was my son’s school.”

Tumblin was classified as the first 9/11 victim to enter that hospital. As she sat there “watching everything move in slow motion,” two nurses came up to her and told her that the Twin Towers had just collapsed. Somewhere in the background, she heard a news report that said planes had crashed into the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. “I must have passed out,” she says, “because the next thing I remember is the hallway, and flames and smoke at a distance, as I was being transferred to a room.”

Tumblin was the only person from her office briefly unaccounted for, she says. Eventually, her supervisor located her through the hospital website and she was able to speak to family members. “All my son’s teachers gathered around him and lifted him up in prayer, as they [prayed] I would not be one of the injured or dead,” she says.

After 9/11, Tumblin entered therapy to help her cope with the terrible memories and what-ifs – she had been offered another job with Morgan Stanley in their offices in the South Tower, on the 48th floor, but had turned it down. One day when she was talking to her therapist, the therapist said: “You know, you ought to consider becoming a nurse,” and Tumblin remembered when long ago she had thought medicine was in her future.

She moved to Ohio to take classes to enable her to get into a nursing program. Then, because Kansas had once been home, because her grandparents were still there (Maria Luisa Colon and Raul Espada, long-time Hesston residents, have since moved to Puerto Rico) and because some members of her extended family had attended Bethel, she applied at Bethel College.

“Gregg Schroeder [then director of nursing] greeted me, helped me with my paperwork, helped me feel at home,” she recalls. She also got a financial boost from the Eva, Justina and Martha Pauls Nursing Scholarship.

In early August, Tumblin, who lives near the Bethel campus, went to visit Rosa Barrera, administrative assistant in the president’s office, who had become a friend. Tumblin had passed her licensing exams and had just received her Registered Nurse certificate from the state of Kansas.

“She was very proud of finally having the certificate in her hands and started telling me how much she had gone through to get to this point,” Barrera says. “[She said] she and her fellow nursing classmates had worked hard to pass the state exam. She said, ‘We were a family and we worked together.’”

Tumblin also told Barrera a story about an experience she had during her nursing studies at Bethel. “While doing her internship, [Ruth] was sent to help a mother deliver her baby on Sept. 11,” Barrera says. “The baby was born at the exact moment she had experienced the World Trade tragedy years ago. She said it was beautiful to witness the birth of life at exactly the same day and time as when she had witnessed so many people die years before.”

On Sept. 11, 2002, Tumblin went back to New York for the one-year anniversary of the World Trade attacks and the memorial service in Battery Park.

“I know that God saved me for a reason,” Tumblin says. “I felt as if I died and was brought back to new life, a life of service to others. For this reason, I decided to return to school and get my nursing degree.”

Tumblin is currently in orientation for a position in the Generations unit at Newton Medical Center and continues as a volunteer for Community Hospices of America in Newton, which she has done for the last two years while studying at Bethel.

“I think hospice [nursing] is eventually what I want to do,” she says, “to be there to help with the final moments. I saw way too many people die without a chance to say goodbye.”

Of her experience on 9/11 – she recalls many more graphic details – she says: “I don’t share my story to scare anyone. I share my story to let people know God is good. Even in such a tragic moment, God’s presence was there. I know this because he sent angels to be with me. I traveled through the valley of death, and God was there.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2010-11 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is in the first tier in its category in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of “America’s Top Colleges” for 2011. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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