I Watched a Friend Die This Morning
Kenneth C. Henry’s Training Notebook
At about 2:15 this morning, during a fairly normal shift, the neverending pile of paper on my desk was small enough that I was able to turn off the light in the battalion office and lie down for what I hoped would be a quiet night.
Wrong as usual! Half an hour later, an engine company, a basic life support unit, and an advanced life support unit were dispatched to a traffic accident on one of the major highways in my battalion district. Prior to the arrival of the first companies, the dispatcher special-called an additional engine company for a possible extrication on this alarm. Per department policy, “the chief goes, too,” and 1 did. Because of the high number of serious extrication calls on this stretch of highway, the first-due ladder company automatically responded to provide a second hydraulic tool should it be needed, and it was.
The first engine on the scene confirmed: “Car versus semi, extrication required.” I arrived on the scene at 2:53 to find a 1986 sports car with the front end pushed into the windshield as a result of running under the rear end of a tractor-trailer hauling rocks. The windshield was shattered but still in place, the T-tops were missing, and four paramedics were systematically attempting to stabilize the single occupant, who was trapped in the driver’s seat with the dashboard and fire wall folded over his legs and lap. The three-person engine company had stretched a preconnect, the captain was setting up the hydraulic spreading tool, and the driver/operator was sawing through the left A-post.
The second-in engine took over the job of preventing the fire that could occur because of spilled gasoline, while the truck company hastily set up the second tool to cut the right-side Apost and the T-top. The windshield was cleared to permit a paramedic to work with the victim inside the vehicle.
The first tool was running and ready to attack the driver’s door when the paramedics gave each other that look that we have all seen too many times. They pulled the sheet up over the driver’s head—he was gone before we even got started! You know the frustration, the anger, the soul searching that follows; you have all been there at one time or another. It’s part of the job—the worst part!
As things changed into slow motion to accomplish the necessary body removal, several of us started to get a gut feeling that something was making this one worse than usual. It first came into focus when one of the sheriff’s deputies on the scene said, “Isn’t that a fire department sticker on the back window?” That was it; that was what was wrong! Most of the personnel who were working this scene have a union sticker on the rear window of their cars. We all see them so often that this one didn’t register with any of us until someone from another agency voiced the question. But now it did; the sticker silently screamed, “I belong to one of you!”
Who was it? Who on the job drives this type of car? You couldn’t recognize the driver, and we still couldn’t get to his wallet. Maybe it wasn’t one of us. Maybe the car was stolen. Maybe it was borrowed. Maybe . . . Wishful thinking! Positive identification was made while we were still removing the car from around the body. Our worst fears were realized; he was one of us. In fact, he was a close friend. He worked on our battalion on another shift.
Who was he? Let’s just say he was a brother. He was a true professional who had made the fire service his avocation as well as his vocation. He was the one you would hope was backing you up in a tight spot. You could depend on him!
He was a young man; he had been on the job for only a few months. Prior to being hired, he had been a line officer in one of the volunteer companies in this battalion. We all knew him, and we all liked him. It was because of his commitment to our profession that he was hired into the career service so young. He had made such a favorable impression on several of the battalion chiefs and company captains that they had spoken for him at the office, recommending he be employed as soon as a vacancy occurred. All of us included a request that he be assigned to our shift when he was hired. He was that type of person; you wanted him around you.
Why did he die this way? He had his whole life in front of him. It isn’t fair! Could it have been excessive speed? I don’t know. Could it have been that he fell asleep? I don’t know. Could it have been alcohol-related? 1 don’t know that, either. After all, we see so much pain, suffering, and death from alcohol-related traffic accidents in our daily work that none of us would tlunk of driving after drinking, would we? Would you?
Is it possible that we have become indifferent to the causes of these tragedies because we see so many of them? Are you one of those people that believe it will always happen to the other guy, that you can handle your booze and know how much you can drink and still safely drive? What if our dead brother felt the same way? If he did, he was obviously wrong—dead wrong.
What if you ‘re wrong? You won’t get a second chance. Think about it!
Thirty-five minutes after the first units arrived on the scene, the body was finally free. The equipment was restowed and some units returned to service. Soon the floodlights were secured and the eerie glow of street flares mixing with the remaining emergency vehicles’ differently colored warning lights were all that remained. The sheet covering the body seemed to flash on and off as a light passed over it intermittently. An engine company remained on the scene with our brother until the medical examiner arrived to start him on his final ride.
As the companies returned to quarters, everyone was quiet, each of us absorbed in our own thoughts. No one even made the usual pot of coffee. The lights were soon out; however, rest did not come. Now is when you have time to really dwell on the senselessness of this type of loss.
I had to call my friend’s captain at shift exchange this morning to tell him that he would be missing a man today; I had to tell him why. It hurt. I had to tell my relief that we lost one of his firefighters during the night. That hurt, too. It still hurts. It always will.
As I write this, the department has lowered the flags to half-mast. In a few days, we will have a fire department funeral to honor our departed brother. We do that well because we do it all too often. However, this time it will be different, because the loss was so unnecessary. He did not die in the heat of battle with our enemy fire. He died on the highway, alone. He never knew his “family” was with him at the time. He never knew we were doing everything we could to save him. And worse yet, we never knew it was him we were trying to save until it was too late, until after he was gone. We didn’t even get to say good-bye! Think about it.
When you go to work in the morning, you know the dangers you face. We all live with that, so do our families; it’s part of the job. A firehouse in Boston has a sign in the apparatus room that says it all; it reads: “Tonight may be the night.” Think about it!
Think about it every time you start into a building without your selfcontained breathing apparatus and full protective clothing. Think about it every time you get ready to take an unnecessary chance either on or off the job. Think about it the next time you start to get behind the wheel when you’ve been drinking. Think about it the next time you go to a funeral. We are going to one in a couple of days, and I assure you we will be thinking about it!
By the time you read this, the grass will be growing on my friend’s grave, but I know that I will still be thinking about it. Could it have been prevented? Probably. Could it have been prevented if it was alcoholrelated? Most definitely! If you really believe the motto “To save life and property,” why not start by saving your own?