Why every firefighter hates the 'worst call' conversation

Why would anyone want into my nightmares?


By J.C.

“Hey you're a firefighter, what is the worst thing you have ever seen?”

Once again, here I am being interrogated by a group of strangers. Great — I get to explain to another under-educated person what a firefighter's job really entails. He leans over to a few of his friends, “Hey guys, this guy is a fireman.” With all interests piqued, a small group gathers around me.

Burned children's clothing, furnishings exterior of a house at the scene of a fatal fire on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020 in Clinton, Miss.
Burned children's clothing, furnishings exterior of a house at the scene of a fatal fire on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020 in Clinton, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

It always goes like this ... one question leads to another, and I end up defending myself, my crew, my department and the career field of all firefighters.

Most days I just laugh it off, shrug my shoulders and try to change the conversation, but today someone else chimes in (speaking of my “life of leisure” as a firefighter). “He has it made: Xbox all day, sleeping all night, free gym memberships,” and so on and so on.

Again usually I laugh it off and say, “Yep, that‘s it," but in my head I say, “If you had only experienced one bad call, if you had ever held one lifeless infant in your whole life, you wouldn't question anything I do.”

Today they are relentless: “The city buys your food,” one fat slob says, shoving his third piece of cake down his huge gullet.

Another man says, “I think I could do your job.” I chuckle to myself thinking, bro, you have been unemployed for three years. What makes you think that qualifies you to do anything besides dent the couch? But I still say nothing.

Scanning the crowd for someone to bail me out, a friend of a friend reaches over and punches my shoulder much harder than someone I just met should touch me. “Come on, tough guy. Look at your big muscles. Don't be shy. What is the worst thing you have ever seen?”

Quietly I say, “Alright, jerk. You want into my nightmares? Fine. Have you ever seen someone die?” I ask the group, “Anyone?” Not one hand. “Have any of you ever had to console a family member because they just lost a child?” Again, not one hand. So I turn to my only friend in this group and ask, “What do you think about when you drive to work?”

He replies, "I really don‘t know ... I just listen to the radio.” The group all nods their heads in agreement.

“When I drive to work I see buildings I have been in that have burned, or where someone has been stabbed, or where children have died, and one building where an entire family died of carbon monoxide poisoning. I look at the divots in the road and it reminds me of my hardest day on the job. It's not just one call that is the worst thing I have ever seen — it's that they all just blend together. Those ghosts in my head haunt me everyday. I cannot unsee the blood stains, the broken bones, or lifeless infants. So thank you for bringing up the 'worst call' conversation again. Why do you people always want to know the worst thing I have ever seen?”

“Do you really think my job is so easy, it's all lifting weights, watching movies, playing Xbox and hitting on chicks? Let me tell you about my worst day and you tell me what you think.”

My worst day on the job

It started off a normal day, checking out my rig and preparing for whatever emergency could arise. As I finish my checkout the emergency alert tones go off ... not the regular tones, but the “this is a really bad emergency” tones. We arrive a few minutes later to find a lifeless body of an 18-month-old angel covered in vomit. Her eyes rolled back into her head, not breathing, not moving and with no pulse. Mom screaming in the background: “I just left her for a minute.” Creepy redneck boyfriend kissing the baby on the mouth saying, “You will be OK, you will be OK.” The seven other children in the house all watching in horror as their little sister is dying.

I can still see her curly brown hair, her little blue lips, her rich brown eyes, the dilated pupils and I can still smell her puke. Doing what we do, we started CPR and did everything according to our training. We poured our heart and soul into saving that little girl's life. According the “the book,” the call and treatment went perfectly. So what went wrong? Nothing, but sadly, she was too far gone and we were not able to save her

Later that afternoon, we found out that the mother's boyfriend was being charged for abuse leading to the death of her child. She was so tiny. I still remember holding her in my hands, doing compressions on her soft chest, praying for a miracle but knowing that this one is probably not coming back.

That's not an easy thing to forget. It comes back to me whenever I see a small girl with deep brown eyes. Trying to forget the horrible start to the day, we went to the gym to work out a little stress, and hopefully prolong our lives. About half-way through our workout we get a call for a report of a structure fire about one mile away. Yes, excitement! We get to use our fire training!

We find the house engulfed in flames. As we get ready with our safety gear and step out of the engine, an elderly man walks up to me with an expression I will never forget. He says, “My wife is still inside — she doesn't move real well and she couldn't get out. PLEASE HELP!”

Knowing the smoke is thick and the roof may come down at any moment, my partner and I rush into the home, with the other crew right on our tails. Turning the first corner we hit a wall of heat and smoke that was so intense that I almost fell over. Dropping to my knees to escape the heat, I say to my partner, “If she is that way, she is a goner.”

We crawl the other direction as the other crew begins fighting the fire. Crawling into the bedroom at the end of the hall we find her still on the bed, her eyes wide open. The heat and smoke have already gotten to her. Her tongue is blackened, swollen to the point of cutting off her airway, but it's her eyes that get to me — wide like in a panic, blood shot and bulging from her skull.

Again there was nothing we could do; she was gone. The worst part is after we pulled her out of the house, I was the one who had to go find the husband and tell him his wife of 50-plus years was gone. My heart went out to him. He kept saying, “I panicked, I should have never left her side. I should have stayed with her and died with her. We should have died together.”

That night after dinner there was a banging at the door. I answered it, finding a young lady in her early 20s in obvious distress. She would not give us any information, just wanted a place to feel safe and rest for a few minutes. My instincts told me that whatever she was running from was life-threatening, but with no medical problem we could not hold her against her will. We called PD to assist us with mitigating the emergency. They debated whether to put her on a medical hold for a psych evaluation (that could last up to 72 hours), but she didn't qualify for that. She refused any medical help, but she did agree to a ride from PD to get home.

She kept saying, “He is going to kill me. You don't know what you are dealing with,” meaning her boyfriend. As she left with PD we all felt like we did the right thing and the hour and a half we spent talking with her, getting to know her and calming her down, we felt like we may have made a difference.

About one hour later, we were called to an auto vs. pedestrian accident on a very busy, fast-moving street. I have been on that call many times; I have seen countless dead bodies on that same stretch of road. This one had a bad feeling from the start.

When we arrived, there was a body in the road and a car into a pole. Walking up to triage the scene, I found a patient in the road. There was the body, but there was no head. She was dead. Moving on to the car, I found the driver semi-conscious and pinned under the dashboard and the steering wheel. There was a passenger — a little girl around the age of seven. She had been in the backseat and was not wearing her seat belt. Upon impact with the light pole, she was thrown forward into the windshield. Her long blond hair was matted with blood, her head and torso stuck halfway through the windshield. Examining the little girl further, I found her striking sky-blue eyes staring right at me. Her neck appeared to be broken. A single tear dripped out of her left eye as I watched her take her last breath. My heart sank, but I knew I had to finish working to get the driver out.

It took about 45 minutes, using the jaws of life, to cut off the doors and push the dash off of his chest and legs. As we pulled him out of the car I could see the extent of his injuries — crushed from the waist down and a broken arm. Sending him to the hospital with another ambulance, I went back to piecing together the scene.

I was thinking, where is the head of the girl who is lying in the road? Walking through the scene looking under bushes and into ditches, I finally found it. Battered and bloody, and wait — I know those earrings. It was the scared girl from earlier in the night. What was she doing here? PD was taking her home. First I was confused, and then I was mad.

The PD officer who took her home was right there. I walked over to him and asked if he had taken her home. “No, why?” he asked.

I told him, “Take a good look at the clothes. It's the same girl.”

He broke down saying, “No ... she refused to let me take her home. She made me drop her off at the gas station right down the road.”

Bystanders were telling us she ran in front of the car on purpose and they even said another car swerved out of her way before that one hit her.

I did everything I could do for her, didn't I? I have gone over that call countless times in my head and I don't know of anything else I could have done. But two beautiful girls died when I felt I should have made a difference. Those blue eyes, the tear, the final breath before I could even get her out of the windshield.

Yes, I wish things were different. We did everything we could. Our PD brothers did everything they could. Some people just can't be helped. The worst part is wondering if she was so desperate that she would consciously risk someone else's life? That little blue-eyed girl didn't need to die that night.

'I have nightmares almost every night'

Not all days are that dramatic or have that much excitement, but some are. I have nightmares almost every night; I see the eyes of the ones I couldn't save. Those images are stuck with me and will remain part of me for the rest of my existence. I can't change that — it's part of what I do; and most days I can say it's all in a day‘s work. But not the day I had those “ghosts” imprinted into my mind: the baby, the grandma, and the two young ladies.

Throughout my story I watch the smiles and the smirks leave the faces of the crowd that had surrounded me; some of the group even found somewhere else to be. The ones who are still listening are silent. One guy says, “Man, I had no idea. I don't care how much you make; you could never pay me enough to do that job.”

I smiled at him and walked away. Having the bittersweet taste of that little victory in my mouth, I put my arm around the love of my life, I hug my children, and thank God for shaping me into who I am. Most people could never deal with the horrors that we see while serving the public.

Yes, emergency responders are a special breed. So many young men and women are caught up in the romance — they think they want to be a firefighter. They want my job. But if they knew my ghosts, would they still?

This article, originally published March 2015, has been updated.

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