Soldiers methodically loaded the elderly and sick onto baggage carts -- sliding stretchers onto the shelves normally used for suitcases -- and pulled them to the open ramps of huge cargo planes as they evacuated residents of hospitals and nursing homes in the path of Hurricane Rita.
Working throughout Thursday night, military and civilian agencies pulled off an ambitious airlift in 19 hours to avoid repeating the failures of New Orleans, where hundreds of infirm residents were trapped and died before help could reach them.
"We're ahead of this storm, not behind it," said Air Force Lt. Col. Wayne Olson, who helped command the operation from a regional airport midway between Beaumont and Port Arthur.
Huge, gray transport planes, big enough to hold military tanks and Humvees, lumbered into the darkening skies Friday with patients lying strapped onto the metal floors, or sitting in wheelchairs with cargo straps looped through their wheels.
"I don't care where I'm going. As long as I'm getting out of Dodge," quipped Susan Horn, 60, sitting on a wheelchair next to her caged cat, Boots, waiting to board a plane.
The makeshift dispatch center tallied nearly 1,300 patients flown out in 18 military flights that took them to a half-dozen cities around the southern United States, from Louisville to Oklahoma City.
Local officials had planned to leave hospitals full. But when Rita took aim at Beaumont on Thursday morning, they realized evacuation was necessary.
"We were a little behind the eight ball, because we didn't think the storm was coming this way," said John Johnson, a Jefferson County emergency official. "We had buses, ambulances, a variety of vehicles."
But nursing homes began asking for help to transport patients, and bedridden residents stuck in their homes began calling for help.
"I live alone. Everyone else had left already," said Denise Culver, 52, a paralyzed woman who called for an ambulance to take her to safety.
Thursday morning, local officials asked for military help. Air Force, Air National Guard, Texas National Guard and even the Coast Guard responded. By Thursday afternoon, the first plane touched down at the Southeast Texas Regional Airport's 6,700-foot runway.
Already, the Beaumont fire and ambulance squads were bringing people from the hospitals and nursing homes. The first plane filled with patients left at 6 p.m. Thursday.
Michele Reese, 28, had given birth to son Shayanne Zachary, just two days before. Her husband had left for Austin with their 18-month-old son.
"I feel safe," said Reese, as she waited for a plane. "I'm just worried about my son. And about the people left behind."
Throughout the night and day, the floor of the small terminal was covered with stretchers. Elderly people with oxygen tanks, hospital patients with intravenous drips, and even gown-clad mothers cradling newborns waited as the military planes landed to take them to destinations unknown.
"We're taking them to anyplace that has room. We didn't want to overload the Texas hospitals," said Maj. Stan Martin, 42, a Mississippi Air National Guard officer at the airport. The names of the patients on each planeload were carefully noted on manifests to try to avoid the confusion that followed airlifts in New Orleans, when families and doctors lost track of patients.
The C-5 planes, big enough to accommodate six tractor-trailer trucks, and the smaller C-130 and C-17 cargo planes, could not get close to the terminal because of their long, sloping wings. Rather than try to carry all of the patients on stretchers, the soldiers commandeered Continental Airlines cargo trailers. They loaded four stretchers on the bottom shelf and four on the top before pulling them to the gaping open doors of the planes.
Capt. Deborah Jones, 37, from Scott Air Force Base in Illinois, directed the soldiers carrying the stretchers up a C-5 ramp. The soldiers also pushed those in wheelchairs up the ramp and into the aircraft.
"We learned our lesson from New Orleans," she said. "It was unfortunate to have to learn it that way. Hopefully, that will never happen again."
Darryl Harris, 42, and Dionne Oliver, 35, both physicians at Memorial Hermann Baptist Hospital, left with some of their patients.
"I'm scared," Oliver admitted. "I've never been through anything like this."
Throughout the night, members of the Beaumont fire squad answered calls from bedridden patients who needed help. They used ambulances, trucks and even cars to fetch the sick and elderly. By Friday morning, the calls had slackened. There was no waiting list, fireman Steve Rothier said. "If they called, we got them."
Melissa Smith, 23 and 81/2 months pregnant, was on the road with other evacuees from Houston when she said she had a seizure. Her husband, John, pulled over to a Beaumont hospital. Hours later, they found themselves on a military aircraft headed for Dallas.
"It was amazing teamwork," said Air Force Capt. Justin Niederer, 32, as he hustled out with the last soldiers onto the plane. His "contingency response" team flew in from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.
As the winds from Rita began to make the takeoffs perilous, the soldiers and airmen finished and hastily grabbed their backpacks to board the last plane. No one was left in the airport.
Johnson said he believed all of the nursing homes were evacuated, along with any residents who called needing help, and most of the hospitals. About 130 patients remained with the staff at Christus St. Elizabeth Hospital because "we got the notification of them late," he said. "They will shelter in place."
As the last plane left, Johnson strolled through the terminal, littered with the wrappers from Meals Ready to Eat, a few wheelchairs left behind, and the debris of haste -- water, gloves, even a few oxygen machines.
"It's done. We finished," he said.