Tough-guy firefighters don't cry ... yeah, right

No matter how tough and cool you are, the emotional weight of what we see will eventually catch you

By Art Goodrich
May 16, 2010
Updated June 10, 2014

I made it through a pretty rambunctious childhood, 13 knee surgeries, a major bacterial infection, one or two heart breaks and plenty of fire, death and destruction in the 22 years that I served as a firefighter and EMT.

I didn't want to simply put the fire out, I wanted to kick its butt — to give some back for the times it kicked mine.

I wanted every medical call to be a save. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.

But, I was sure that I had developed a mental and physical toughness. I could be compassionate without showing emotion. I was trained to project a calm, outward demeanor by some of the best leaders in the fire service.

I can tell my stories, provide details as deep as you would want to go and do so with boyish enthusiasm. I don't get emotional, but I am passionate when I talk about it.

There was one accident call that rocked my world.

Summer of '95
It was in the summer of 1995. By then, I had led the effort at hundreds of MVAs. Many of them had fatalities or multiple fatalities.

I was unfazed. I never suffered nightmares. Maybe I was "programmed" differently. Maybe my "processor" was bigger; I don't know.

But, that two-vehicle, head-on collision on Saw Mill Hill in the summer of 1995 put me into a momentary spin after we had cleared the call and I had gone home.

It was a Saturday, mid-afternoon and temperatures were in the 90s. My pager tones dropped and we were being dispatched for mutual aid to a vehicle accident west and south of us.

The host fire department was directing traffic and had removed the passenger from the large, luxury car and two passengers from the compact car.

Recovery ops
The drivers — both deceased — were pinned in their vehicles, which is why we were called. We had the equipment to get them out.

First, I looked into the small car. The driver had the car's engine pressing against him, making for a very tough extrication.

I went to the big car. The elderly male driver was pinned against the steering wheel and his left foot was under the brake pedal. No air bags.

I decided that we would take the big car first.

Laws of physics
We cut the seat retractor so the seat could be moved. Without thinking, I told a new guy to grab the left foot and untangle it from the brake pedal.

As soon as he bent down and saw the protruding ankle bones, he completely freaked out. I put a hand on his shoulder, gave him my clipboard and asked him to collect vehicle information and to assist the police officer with insurance cards and such. I had a veteran take care of the entanglement issue.

Then, we went to the compact car to extricate the young male driver.

His lower body was pinned by dashboard and motor. His legs were bent so far under him that his knee joints snapped, exposing bones and interior views of the joints. Imagine getting hit from behind in the lower legs and then getting hit in the chest from the front at the same time. These were the physical forces at play here. Inertia, gravity and mechanical stress points all met at once.

His upper body was between the front bucket seats and the back, right floorboard, where his wounds had bled profusely. There was a standing pool of blood in the floorboard that was attracting flies.

The smell was one that you never forget. Needless to say, the smell and the flies were taking their toll on my guys.

Mission accomplished
We worked for about 40 minutes pushing, pulling, prying, cutting and cussing. At the peak of the operation, I looked up and an adult male with a young child was trying to get close to take a look. I went towards him like I had been shot from a cannon, but kept my cool.

"Sir, you do not want to see this. Go back to your house."

We wound up taking the victim out the passenger side after removing the passenger seat. To spare the gawkers, we used blankets to shield our activities.

After we loaded the body into the coroner's van, I got my crew together and told them of the great job that they had done and how very proud I was of them.

After we got back to the station, completed our inventory and equipment checks, I went home.

In the quiet moments
Instead of going into the house, I walked around to our patio and sat down.

And then I cried — hard.


Because I had a son, who, at the time was the same age as the three in the small car. They had just graduated from high school just like my son, were enjoying the summer just like my son and the driver and one of his friends were dead.

I kept thinking about the devastation that this accident would cause the parents, families and friends and how, on any given day, it could be my son and my family struggling with this horrific heartache and it made my heart ache and I cried and cried.

I felt like I had this one shot to drain my being of all of the emotional liability; I had to get it all out of my system for fear of it returning at a most inopportune time.

Lost potential
I kept thinking about how we had in one car an elderly couple, perhaps pillars in their communities who had the opportunity to build their lives, their families and their communities and to lay a foundation and a legacy for future generations.

And then in the other car, you had three kids, who, at 18 were just starting a new chapter in their lives, only to have it shattered. Their potential contributions to humankind were destroyed in a matter of seconds. And I cried.

My wife must have seen my vehicle from the kitchen window, found me on the patio, came out and sat down without saying a word. She knew that it was better to let me say something first.

We talked and we cried together until it got dark.

And that was the last time that I was affected like that. But, it was also the last time that I wore "tough guy" on my sleeve.

Tell your stories, boys and girls. It's liberating for you and educational for those who read it.

The article is protected by federal copyright law under The Adventures of Jake and Vinnie umbrella. It is written and submitted by Art Goodrich a.k.a. ChiefReason. This article or any other article submitted under The Adventures of Jake and Vinnie umbrella cannot be reproduced in ANY form without the expressed, written permission of the author. Violations are punishable by applicable laws.

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