Two images that make profoundly vivid the dangers that our first responders face are in Raleigh Fire Capt. Paul Wyatt’s comments about the recent Metropolitan fire:
“…the radiant heat was starting to melt my gear. I could smell it.” A firefighter then yelled that a construction crane was falling. “All we could see when we looked up was fire and smoke, so we had no idea which way it was falling,” Wyatt said.
That peril is rendered all the more human in Wyatt’s next thought. “Not knowing where that crane is, there was that couple seconds of thinking about my daughter, if I’d see her.” As it turned out, the crane landed near the Link Apartments building across the street, and after three hours of fighting the fire with his fellow firefighters, Wyatt was free to go home to his wife and daughter.
Several years ago I served jury duty in a trial involving arson and insurance fraud. We were not told that a firefighter had been severely injured in the fire, for his injury was not part of the arson and fraud charge. So that we would not be influenced by legally irrelevant issues, we were instructed not to read news reports or discuss the fire with anyone outside the jury. We found the defendants guilty and the judge sentenced them to prison time. I then read of the firefighter’s injuries.
In talking with our local fire chief, I learned that the firefighter would have lost his life had he not trusted his gear. A floor had given way, and he fell into the flames below. His mask filled with scalding steam, but he resisted the impulse to rip it off. (It was the same training and bravery that kept Capt. Wyatt from shedding his melting gear.) A ladder that was lowered to the firefighter twisted in the heat, but he was able to climb out with the help of his fellows. He survived, but could not return to the force, owing to his injuries.
These are but two instances of many in which our first responders are put in harm’s way. Not only that, they tend to the wounded or dead. They must learn to recognize tension pneumothorax (collapsed lung owing to puncture), septic shock, the rule of nines (a metric to estimate the extent of body surface burned), on and on. In multiple-casualty incidents they walk among the bodies and assign triage tags. Red, yellow, green, or black. They have less than sixty seconds to assess each adult patient. Children get a few seconds more.
Speaking of children, I am reminded of the little boy that we lost at the end of an Emergency Medical Technician course that I took to qualify as a first responder. The Honda was at a tilt on an embankment, and there was a body on the grass. We ran past the car and approached the body at a slackened pace in order to determine if the scene was safe to enter. Protocol. A woman was lying in a contorted position, her face covered in blood. The fractured shaft of her left femur protruded from her thigh just above the knee.
We lost her twice. After she died the first time, the supervisor of the scenario, a mock accident, brought her back to life to give us another chance. We went through the protocols a second time, but we lost her again. Sitting there on the grass, my team and I were demoralized. Our supervisor reviewed the case with us, and then she asked if anyone had checked the wrecked car as we went past it to get to the bleeding woman.
We went to the Honda, and there in a fetal position on the back floorboard was a little boy, a mannequin. He was dead, a peanut lodged in his trachea. His bag of peanuts was scattered on the floor. We could possibly have saved him with a Heimlich maneuver if one of us had stopped to check the car. He did not have a name, nor did his mother who died twice in our care. I drove home in a state of total despair. I do not exaggerate when I say that that loss affected my mood for the rest of the week, partly because our team had failed. But mainly because the death that had inscribed itself in my memory was that of the child.
Imagine now how it is to face deaths and disasters such as that in real life. Imagine Sandy Hook and children riddled with Bushmaster .223 rounds. Imagine entering a building ablaze and trying to make your way through to save a life, staking your own life on your training and gear. How do firefighters, police, paramedics, ambulance drivers and other first responders arise from sleep and follow the next 911 call? Join me in saluting and applauding them all.
James Seay is a professor emeritus at UNC-Chapel Hill. His poems and essays have appeared in Esquire, The Nation, Oxford American, Harper’s, and forthcoming in The New Yorker.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this op-ed inadvertently omitted police from the list of first responders.