I’m one of those guys who doesn’t really like to talk about the “serious” calls. Mark vonAppen wrote a piece about a call he had gone on.
As most all firefighters get asked, what’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen. Even with my wife, I don’t talk about work so why would I talk about it with total strangers. I’m right on par with Mark, the horrific death of someone is a burden I shall keep. There’s no need to involve more people to the nightmare.
However, I suppose there is some therapy in getting it out every once in a while and test to see how much you’ve forgotten. It was about 10pm in the middle of April when I got the call. It was a motor vehicle crash on the highway with a car fire and a possible 10-26. I didn’t know what a 10-26 was and I learned the hard way.
I was staying with my brother-in-law and he was a lieutenant for the on-call department, we jumped in his truck and drove to the station which was 5 minutes or less away. We had a crew of 4 but no drivers except him. He told me to get in the officer’s seat, the other two in back and we responded. The response was only a minute or two from the station.
Right turn out of the station and the next right onto the highway and there we could see the glow. “Pack up and get ready to work, cars don’t just explode”, my brother-in-law said. As we got closer, he shouted to the tailed guys to get ready and stretch a line. “Lenny, grab a radio and I want you to pull anyone you can out of the car on fire and walk the scene, let me know what we’ve got.”
The engine stopped just after the bridge, a police cruiser was near us. already parked, we got out and peaked into the first car that was fully involved. No one there. There was another car just ahead of it fully involved, both in the breakdown lane. No one there.
Two cars, one must have been yellow, basically exploded. The two-lane highway where cars the speed limit is 55mph, cars normally zip by well into the 60’s. It was cool out, maybe 32 degrees because there was the lightest of snow starting to fall. The air was humid, the pavement was wet from the melting snow. All the snow from winter had melted, I could see car parts on either side of the roadway in the brown grass. The cars on fire were to my right pretty close to the guardrail.
I smelled spring, snow, motor oil, antifreeze, gasoline and a copper odor that I could put my finger on. When i quickly helped position the charged hose line, the pavement was slippery, probably from the oil.
I proceeded to walk quickly up the center of the highway. There was a rumble strip where the double-yellow line was painted. 3/4” divots in the pavement meant to alert drivers they were crossing the line. The divots were filled with fluid, so I stepped just to the right of them. That was my first 3 steps.
I picked my head up and methodically scanned left to right as I walked. Two cars on fire to my right, a car facing the wrong way to my left with a man standing staring off into nothing, motionless, pale, confused. There was a corpse a few steps in front of me. Half of one at least, missing an arm, butchered around the waist. It was a male, face up, young with obvious trauma to the face. Nothing I could.
There were entrails and tissue in larger recognizable chunks here and there. I tried not to step on them. I yelled to the man standing to my left “are you alright, is anyone else with you hurt?” He nodded his head no. I was counting cars and counting people. 3 cars, 2 people. Shit. A pair of legs to my left, in blue jeans still with the pelvis and four or five inches of bloody spine with shreds of tissue attached propped up from jeans at a 40 degree angle. Not sure if those belong to the top half I just saw, I’ve only walked a few feet.
Just then, an explosion to my right. I was still next to the second car on fire, the tires were blowing. Focused and determined, I didn’t flinch. I was too busy trying to put this puzzle together. A few more steps and I could see the town’s medic checking the pulse of a male laying facedown. He nodded no. Okay 3 cars, 3 people. I was still walking.
Avoiding the car parts and pieces, I could tell the pavement was still slick. I walked past our Assistant Chief who must have just arrived and started walking the scene. I gave him the ‘holy fuck, this is bad look with my eyes and a nod’. We didn’t say anything, just walked past each other quickly.
I saw a vehicle up ahead of me to the right. It was an SUV with heavy front end damage and the back of it up against the guardrail. I could finally see over the crest of the highway’s incline. There was an ambulance and a police cruiser in the center of the road and another SUV/station wagon looking car pulled over to the right. I peaked into the damaged SUV, 1 patient, the driver, appeared conscious and breathing, loads of blood coming from her face, she looked like an elderly female. 4 cars, 4 patients. There were 3-4 people by the station wagon, all were out standing and talking. I asked them if they were okay, yes. They said they were all in the same car and witnessed the explosion.
I walked towards the ambulance and cruiser. They were talking to 1 patient. Minor scratch over his eye but standing and talking. Okay, turn around and go back to the engine. I made the turn and I could see the flashing lights of our engine, I couldn’t see it, but it was there some 600-800 yards away. This scene was massive. I walked back quickly, scanning the sides of the road for other patients. We had been on scene less than five minutes. It seemed like an hour.
Sadly, someone parked on the on ramp and was talking video. Fortunately they didn’t see the devastation. The were only filming the fire and had a bad angle to the scene. They posted it on YouTube. This video still haunts me, taunting me to watch and listen. About once a year, I give in.
I returned to my officer and told him I have 5 cars. The two that were on fire, another 1/4 of a car on fire just ahead. I think I have 2 DOA, half a guy here and possible his other half over there. I have one elderly female about 500 yards ahead that needs extrication. The fires were mostly out. The second guy in the hose was instructed to bring the portable generator and some cutting tools up to the woman in the SUV. We started grabbing as much as we could. One hand each on the generator/pump and started walking up. The second engine that was dispatched arrived and they were unloading their extrication tools.
Another ambulance was there and they started treating the patient. They needed the roof off the SUV sooner rather than later. We got the roof cut and removed without any drama. Two medics were trying to figure out how to move the patient. She was really banged up. She had a c-collar on and normally we would lay her on a backboard and move her out that way. We couldn’t tonight. She was bleeding too much and laying her back compromised her airway. She would suffocate on her blood.
She was back boarded upright and moved out of the vehicle and quickly taken to the hospital. We went back to the fiery cars that were mostly just steaming now. You could feel the heat, the humidity of the steam, the smell of a burnt car and a car crash. Now to search the sides of the road. We fanned out with thermal cameras and walked both sides of the highway. It started to become clear. The adrenaline was going away and my brain starting processing what we had seen.
We stayed there overnight waiting for Medical Examiner to arrive. Our stay was about 7 hours long. I sat on the guardrail with the crew and stared blankly at the devastation. There were body parts and pieces everywhere mixed in with the broken cars. We could see the details of what we were working in…
The divots in the middle of the highway were indeed filled with vehicle fluids, but also with blood. Blood is slippery and were walking through a huge field of it. Pieces of human tissue were our boots, our hose line. The made it slippery to walk and move the hose earlier. There was indeed half a corpse in the middle of the road, face turned slightly in our direction, eyes partly open. I tried not to look but I couldn’t help myself.
We tried to joke with each other to ease the pain, the tension, trying to relax a bit, go back to what we know. I think it helped. I dunno. The tower truck arrived and positioned over the scene with it’s bright flood lights. We could see more. Police was starting to reconstruct the incident. Snow was still falling. We had time, my brother-in-law asked me to go up and see the scene from the bucket. I complied and we reviewed the scene.
In all of this misery the single most amazing thing I had ever scene happened. It was shift change for one of the police officers. His relief came up to the scene, curious I’m sure. And in the middle of the night, kneeling slightly with snow falling, he said a prayer for the half a corpse laying in middle of the road. Astounded and in awe, there was a life lost and regardless how any of this happened, this police officer who just started work came to the scene and said a prayer and then left to go about his normal patrolman duties.
The Medical Examiner arrived and the puzzle became more clear with each minute. 2 males in a yellow Corvette had fled from the police in the neighboring town. It was estimated that the vehicle was traveling between 120-140 mph when it impacted the SUV with the woman we extricated. The driver of the Corvette was ejected and was torn apart. The passenger was also ejected and flew head first into the vehicle on the left side of the highway. There was a significant dent on the driver side door of that vehicle and the ME pointed out brain matter on the door itself. The driver of that vehicle was the gentleman standing staring off into nothing. He was uninjured but witness the accident, witnessed the ejected bodies in the air, and opened his vehicle door to find the face of the Corvette passenger looking towards him up against the guardrail.
The Corvette was less than a week old per the registration sticker we found on the windshield that was found some 600 yards from the initial collision, off in the grass to the side of the road. The driver was familiar to police as they have had run ins with him before. In fact, this was the second major incident on this stretch of road that the driver was involved in. This made me angry.
The family in the station wagon up ahead said something about a car being airborne and going over them. The patient that was talking to police and EMTs when I made it to the other side of the scene walked through all the debris from his vehicle which was the mangled fiery mess that our crew dealt with. I still don’t know how he is alive let alone released from the hospital within a couple hours with no injuries except for a small cut.
The Corvette was removed from the highway with a large loader the highway department sent. The car literally had to be scraped off the road as the gouges and melted pavement were revealed. The crew helped the ME bag the dead bodies and scour the scene for body parts. In all 3 body bags. One with with the two main parts and a bag with the other stuff and the other for the intact body. The ME was a 20+ year retired firefighter. He said it would help in us processing and dealing with the incident. He played teacher talking about the the parts, identifying everything. Teeth, skull, large and small intestines, an arm, vertebrae. Perhaps it helped.
We hosed the highway down and tried to make as much of the incident go away. It was nearly the start of the morning commute, we had to wrap things up. We had been up all night, all of us had to go to work at our usual jobs. Everything was packed up and we all stared at the scene, now clear of car debris, body parts and fire. The guardrail to the right had all sorts of dents where these vehicles bounced off. Scratches, heat damage.
Then we left. It took me almost a month before I drove through there again. Everything came back like it had just happened. We had a CISD and I participated. I don’t know if it helped me, but maybe others… But like Mark vanAppen, I intentionally avoid driving through there. A few weeks after the incident I learned the woman we extricated was a young single mother about 28 years old. She had broken basically all the bones in her faces. With the structure gone, it was no wonder she looked so old, with flesh drooping. I searched the internet for news, I was hoping to find something good.
Apparently the woman was forced to leave her home from the Mother’s Day floods the year prior and was moved in with her parents with 2 kids in tow. She was returning from work and was maybe only 2-3 miles from home. She was either going through a divorce or had just gone through one within the last year. Then this happened. I was informed that she had significant injuries because of the accident. That her brain was deprived of oxygen to the point where there was damage. She was alive but she would never be “normal”. She had a long list of surgeries to endure to rebuild her face and the lifelong battle with brain damage.
So now as we approach the 7 year anniversary of this incident, sure I can stay positive and pull the positives from the night and use those to be a better firefighter. I’m a full-time firefighter now. But as you can tell if your read this far, I still remember it like yesterday. PTSD is for real. I still intentionally avoid driving by the scene. There’s a new guardrail, there’s’ new pavement but I can still see everything there. I stopped trying to search for information on the woman. In fact, I don’t look up an information on any of the patients from any of my calls. I don’t want to know any more about them than what I already know. I detach myself from them as much as I can.
Some people might think this is cold. I go from working a code to leaving as fast as I can. I don’t want to see the family photos, know how much they meant to the family, I don’t want the baggage. Today I work the code and if we call it on scene, I grab our shit, cover the body and exit as soon as possible. I’m not avoiding the inevitable truths of working on a scene with someone who just died. I replay every move a million times in my head over the next week, I don’t sleep and I try to get feedback on what went well, what went bad. How do I improve. But I don’t want emotion to play a part. I’m sorry. I can’t let every death haunt me.
As soon as I can, I try to laugh and move on because the shift isn’t over, I have 24 more years before I can retire and that’s a lot of baggage to carry for a very long time.
A couple of days ago, Boston Fire lost 2 firefighters while working at a 9-alarm fire. Hit close to home since it’s less than an hour drive. For good or bad, the reporters did their thing with the live “play-by-play” coverage. It’s frustrating because it’s a lot of speculation and lets be honest, they don’t understand fire behavior and fire tactics, but I suppose they are doing the best they can. Within a few hours my Facebook was exploding with video and then eventually the big one. The audio from dispatch.
I avoided listening. Been a few days and I still haven’t listened. I’ve listened to a couple from other fires for close calls and try to come away with some useful training. Maybe I will with this some day, but for now, I’m gonna skip this one.
If listening is therapy for you, it’s linked above.
The wife was watching the news when I came home later the evening of that fire. Her sister had texted her asking me to change professions, half kiddingly. I turned the television off and asked her not to watch that stuff. I don’t think it’s healthy for me or her. I’m not ignoring what happened. I just want to be the one to explain it to her so maybe it can make sense to both of us. Maybe that’s the wrong answer.
I figure that I can’t be scared of going to work and she can’t be afraid that I’ll never come home. Respect the risk, enjoy every moment of life and have the confidence that you’ll come out the other side ready for the next one. I try to live a good life, make people smile, work hard, make a difference. RIP brothers. We’ll take it from here.