When firefighters can’t forget things they see
I’ve got a lot on my mind after all these years, every one of those years filled with similar incidents
By Michael Morse
I first faced death on a cold winter afternoon in a hole 20 feet deep.
An excavation job went horribly wrong, the foundation collapsed, burying the foreman. Twenty firefighters risked everything, frantically trying to dig him out. An hour later, long after the sun had set, we got him out. One by one we climbed from the grave, happy to be alive yet sorry that we couldn’t save him.
A few months later, a grandmother and her baby were caught in the rear wheels of an 18-wheeler as it cut a corner too tightly, trying to avoid a snow bank. The baby was dragged 100 yards in the mangled carriage, the grandmother crushed next to the snow bank. The grandmother survived, the baby did not.
Not long after, a man hid in some low shrubbery, waiting for a train. When the train drew close, he ran in front of it. The engineer never had a chance to slow down. The man disintegrated on impact. I walked toward the carcass, trying to avoid hundreds of quarter-sized pieces of meat, a surreal aura surrounding us as we covered what was left of the body.
With almost a year on the job, I stood helplessly and watched my brother firefighters stumble from the top of a 15-foot storage tank, overcome by fumes and nearly as dead as the guy they had been sent to rescue from the confined space. They had been attempting to rescue a worker who was overcome by the same fumes while cleaning the vat and died hanging from his safety harness.
Later that week, I saw my friend’s brother hanging in a bedroom closet. He called 911, I showed up and helped him cut his brother down, noticing how alike they looked, even when one of them was blue.
By the end of my first year, I had seen more than I care to remember. Between all of these calls and many more, we did fight some fire. I was well into my second year when I got my first two fire victims. I remember bagging the 3-year-old with one hand and doing compressions on the 1-year-old until more help showed up.
Some things you never forget. I’ve got a lot on my mind after all these years, every one of those years filled with similar incidents.
Firefighters? Yeah, we‘re firefighters. And a whole lot more.
I guess diggers, confined space rescuers, CPR on dead baby performers, body part recoverers, hanging brother cutter-downers and the million and one other things we do when nobody else knows what to do doesn‘t fit on our helmet shields.
Why am I writing this now?
Maybe I’m a little tired of picking up the paper or turning on the news and hearing about the recent town or city that closed fire companies or reduced manning or laid firefighters off, and demanded pay cuts and benefit concessions.
Maybe I’m tired of having people ask, innocently enough, what was the worst thing I’d ever seen, as if my telling them some gruesome story will somehow add spark to the conversation and liven up their party without destroying whatever good time I was having. Maybe I’m tired of saying things like, “I didn’t cause this, I just responded and tried to make things better.”
Maybe I’m sick of hearing how “firefighters” shouldn’t be able to shop for dinner, or retire after “just 20 years.”
Or, maybe I’m just tired.