‘My lieutenant didn’t come home': Widow shares powerful story of loss
Melanie Clark reflects on the events following the death of her husband, Lt. Brad Clark
Have you ever put much thought into what happens if you don’t go home at the end of your shift? Sure, you’ve taken steps to execute a will, and generally, “it” is always on our minds, but I mean have you really put a lot of thought into it? I doubt it.
Generally speaking, we fire and EMS types consider ourselves pretty hardened when it comes to emotional stability. But at FDIC 2019, one of the first classes I attended proved to be one of the most emotionally powerful classes I’ve ever attended. I don’t believe it a stretch to say that there wasn’t a dry eye in the packed auditorium as Melanie Clark reflected on the day her husband – her lieutenant – didn’t come home.
Just another day – until everything changed
Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018, began like any other workday in the Clark household, with Hanover County (Virginia) Fire-EMS Department Lt. Brad Clark kissing his wife, Melanie, goodbye for the day, neither knowing that would be their last kiss. Later that night, Brad would be killed when a tractor-trailer crashed into an emergency scene on Interstate 295.
As Tropical Storm Michael was bearing down on Virginia, it was one of those bad weather days. It was bad enough that Brad called Melanie earlier in the day and suggested that she head home early from work to take care of their family of four girls. Melanie knew things must be bad for Brad to call her to go home.
In keeping with what I would call a “traditional fire-service family,” Melanie was supposed to join Brad and his crew for dinner at the fire station; however, the bad weather would change those plans, too. About 9 p.m., Brad and Melanie talked on the phone, as the tones went off in the background for the last call Brad would take – and the last words Melanie would hear from him.
Brad took his crew to Interstate 295 near mile marker 38 for a vehicle wreck. On board were Chris Elish, Dave Johnson and Carter Lewis, a brand-new firefighter, working his first shift out of the academy. The recruit school graduation was scheduled for that evening, but the weather had other plans, and the graduation was rescheduled.
The Hanover engine took a blocking position in lane 1, providing protection for the incident in front of them. Brad was positioned at the rear of the apparatus, and saw the impending doom – a tractor-trailer barreling their way, not yielding to the move-over laws.
Brad yelled to the other crewmembers to get out of the way. Chris jumped into the engine, an action that ultimately saved his life.
In a horrific series of events, the tractor-trailer struck the engine, together striking Carter, Dave and Brad, with the engine being push onto Brad. Carter lost a leg in the accident, and Dave suffered life-threatening injuries but ultimately survived.
In giving his life, Brad saved others.
Words no one wants to hear on the emergency scene
“Mayday!” called over the radio.
As the dust settled, other firefighters saw the fire truck sitting on top of Brad. They were able to back it off him, but his injuries were catastrophic as he was pronounced deceased on the scene.
Another firefighter laid their coat over Brad’s body, as the on-scene folks began to deal with the horror and an armada of responding apparatus coming their way.
“One black, two red firefighters,” was spoken over the radio, with “one green from the original accident, and one green from the tractor-trailer”. Words no one wants to hear were uttered for responding units to gather a picture of their scene. Mutual aid was called in, not only for the scene, but also for general help for the Hanover County Fire-EMS Department.
On-scene personnel were taken from the scene to the closest fire station, #7, for a debriefing. Apparatus was left on the scene while the state police investigated. Mutual-aid units would eventually bring the drivable apparatus back to the stations.
Understanding the man – and the letter
Melanie and Brad married in November 2014. Melanie spoke of Brad as a true family man. Brad and Melanie each had two daughters from previous relationships, and Brad was a dad to all four.
Brad was a founding member of “350 Line,” a training company for Virginia firefighters. Melanie described Brad as squeezing every minute out of every day in everything he did.
Melanie painstakingly relayed an eerie personal story of a time before they were married when Brad took her around the fire station. On his station computer, Brad showed Melanie a particular icon. He said it was a letter that was only to be opened in the event of his death. Melanie didn’t think much of it at the time. Knowing Brad, he likely downplayed the significance to keep her at ease, she said.
A terrible reality sets in
The night of the crash, Melanie began to get phone calls. Nobody could really tell her anything because, frankly, they probably didn’t know anything themselves. They had only heard of the event, so they were mainly just asking questions: “Have you talked to Brad?” “There’s been an accident on 295 – have you heard from Brad?”
After a phone call or two, she texted Brad – no answer. Doubt began to creep into her mind, but she thought, nothing bad could happen to Brad – he would call soon. Then Facebook started to light up with sentiments like, “Prayers for station 6, there was a fatality.”
It became clearer to Melanie that this was more than just another call. She dropped to her knees and started screaming.
She ended up driving to the fire station, still unaware of any status on Brad. She recalls walking around, somewhat aimlessly, looking for anyone she knew. As she sat in the station office, the chief came in with the chaplain. Melanie only remembers saying, “No … no ….”
Time was standing still, she said. Melanie recalls little else other than “walking around like a zombie.” The department appointed a family liaison, who Melanie credits with helping her through the most difficult time of her life.
Now, the letter Brad wrote. A few days after Brad’s death, Melanie relayed to the chief that she remembered a letter on Brad’s computer – something now more than four years old. Staff was able to find the letter. Turns out there were actually two letters – one to Melanie and a second to be read at the funeral. His letters were titled “My calling to serve others.” The letters were read and followed, in amazing detail, to include who sits with who, what songs to play, and a caveat to address “just in case we aren’t married yet.”
How amazing to bear witness to Melanie’s presentation. Although we could stop here, there are several lessons learned in the course of taking care of our own.
Lessons learned from the death of Lt. Brad Clark
While a safety investigation is not currently available for review, it appears from what we know of the incident that the engine and medics were doing everything right. The engine took a blocking position in lane 1 and positioned to protect the incident scene from exactly what happened.
Remember the other member who put his coat over Brad’s body? He drove one of the ambulances to the hospital with a patient. As time stretched on, commanders began to lose fidelity with that firefighter’s location, and state police and the medical examiner began to doubt the identity of the firefighter under the coat – a coat emblazoned with the other firefighter’s last name. Commanders sent firefighters back to the scene, searching fervently for the other firefighter, with a sinking feeling of despair, hoping no other bodies were to be found. Ultimately, that firefighter was found alive and well, and Brad’s identity was confirmed.
The department acknowledges that they needed to work on their notification process – something from which many, if not most, departments should learn.
Further, the department social media policy needed work, and like many others have found, it is nearly impossible to get in front of the social media wave. Having a solid policy and direction for staff and members to follow provides a basis of understanding, and hopefully compassion, that others will follow.
Use of a chaplain’s corps is necessary and priceless.
Death preplanning was priceless for Melanie and the department. More than a standard will, Brad had provided specific instructions and desires, relayed expectations for his family, his crew and the department – a stunning display of the family man that he was.
Making change: A new mission for Melanie
Melanie has since been showered with blessings that have allowed her to leave her previous employment in order to take on advocacy for responder safety full time.
Stewarding through the halls of Richmond, HB1811 and HB1911 have made their way through the legislative process, awaiting the governor’s signature. These bills, respectively, ban driver cell phone use in vehicles, except for emergency responders, and upgrade Virginia’s move-over law from a misdemeanor charge to a reckless driving charge, with a $2,500 fine and up to 6 months in jail.
Legacies live on
In the 40 years that I’ve been in this business, no presentation has affected me the way this one did. Thank you, Melanie, and thank you, Brad. Both of your legacies will live on for others to learn from.
We need to take care of each other and take care of our families. This presentation drives home those sentiments intimately. Brad demonstrated heroism in so many ways – let’s emulate those qualities.
Practice and train regularly on highway safety. Take time now to ensure that you and your family are taken care of in the event the unfortunate were to occur.