There Is A Ceiling In The Darkness
December 2, 2021
Last night I was plagued by nightmares in my sleep; recurring dreams in which I was dying through a series of tragic events. I spent the duration of yesterday thinking about my 22 year fire department career. Last night I as I lay awake, I realized that there is a ceiling in the darkness, and now is the time that I need to finally tell my story. These are the critical incidents I now think about, sometimes up to 10 minutes out of every day. The memories are always with me; they never go away, and time does not heal the wounds.
When I was a new medic, I was a work talking to a coworker of mine about the weekend shift. We were both scheduled for a double shift on the upcoming Saturday and Sunday and we were making plans to get the crew together and have a BBQ at the station. My coworker knew a local butcher and we were planning to cook up hamburgers and hotdogs. Before we could finish our conversation, a call went out for a medical assist, and my coworker said, “Tom, I’ll see you Saturday, don’t forget.”
He jumped into the ambulance, his partner jumped into the back of the ambulance, and from the drivers seat, he radioed in to dispatch that his unit was responding. A few minutes later, we got a second call for a motor vehicle accident. I responded with my medical unit while a few of my other coworkers responded with a fire engine.
We arrived on scene moments later to find that my coworker who was responding to a 911 medical call had been struck by a drunk driver traveling the opposite direction. He was pinned at the wheel of the ambulance and was killed instantly. His partner in the back of the ambulance was unharmed because he was rear-facing and restrained with his seat belt. He was transported to the hospital, and I will never forget the blank emotionless stare on his face as he lay speechless on the stretcher as we transported him to the hospital.
At 3 in the morning, a call went out for a critical car accident with one confirmed fatality. I responded from the station and less than a minute away from the scene. I responded with the Paramedic fly car and the police were already on scene. As soon as I arrived, a rookie police officer came towards me with tears in his eyes and he told me not to look. I told him it was okay, and that I had to because it was my job.
I approached the scene and determined that there were two patients; one was not wearing their seat belt and had been ejected through the windshield of their vehicle at high speed and had struck a tree. Their body lay at the base of the tree, wrapped like a ribbon around the tree, obviously deceased.
The second victim was a seat-belted driver of a smaller car that was traveling the opposite direction. Due to the impact, the driver was crushed into the back seat of the car with the driver seat pressing into the lid of the trunk. They were still alive and as soon as I approached the car, we made eye contact. With utter disbelief, I yelled out, “we have a survivor in this car”!
I directed the crew to bring over rescue tools, and I started to provide care to the victim. I looked directly into his eyes and told him, “it’s going to be okay, I will take care of you, and take you to the hospital.” The victim looked at me, now with a look of confidence that they were going to be okay. At the time, I had just completed extensive training in vehicle rescue, so I started to cut the car apart while another Paramedic took over patient care. After several minutes, the patient had been rescued and placed into the ambulance. The patient started to crash, and an older Paramedic said that there was no time.
The patient asked me if I would pray with them, which I did. Holding their hand as they died, the whole time I expressed how I was sorry. The last words the patient said were, “it’s okay; you did whatever you could, you were a hero, and I am at peace now.”
They passed away and I could feel the life leave their body. The senior Paramedic took my hand away from the patient, and covered them in a white sheet. The next thing I remember was sitting on the back step of the ambulance crying and feeling as if I had somehow failed.
I was doing city work, and responded to a 911 call for an unknown medical problem. As soon as I arrived on scene, I found a small child who had reportedly fallen down a flight of stairs and had two broken arms. The mechanism of injury did not match the injuries, but I nodded in agreement to the parents, and took the child to the hospital with my partner. I removed the clothes from the child, and noticed that they had a lot of bruises that were in various stages of healing; a few were fresh, many more were older.
Upon my arrival at the hospital, I documented my findings, including suspected child abuse, notified the emergency room doctors, then finally submitted a report to child protective services. At work two weeks later, I was sent a form letter that stated that the incident had been investigated and that there was, “no evidence of abuse found”. At that moment, I was satisfied that the system had worked, and for whatever reason, I must have simply been overzealous in my reporting.
About a month later, I responded to another 911 call at the same location, and again, found the same small child. This time, they had suffered severe burns. The parents stated that their child had, “accidentally touched the stove when it was on.”
I again took the child to the same hospital, made a second report to the doctors, and a second report to child protective services. Two weeks later the same form letter arrived in my mailbox at work, stating that the second reported claim was investigated and that “no evidence of abuse found”. This time, I called child protective services by phone and reported that this was the second time I had reported obvious cases of abuse; the only response was that, “both reports were investigated and nothing was found”.
A few months passed, and I continued at work as usual. One afternoon we were dispatched to a non-emergency request for assistance by the police. I assumed that it would simply be a standby for the police department, but we were requested to respond directly to the scene. As soon as my partner and I arrived on scene, we both recognized the location. The child was found deceased and wrapped in black plastic garbage bags. Because I was the Paramedic who had treated the child most recently, I was called in and asked if I could identify the patient as being the one I had transported twice before. I confirmed, to the best of my ability, that it was the same child. The coroner requested that since we had previously treated and transported the child on more than one occasion, that we had to transport the child to the hospital morgue, which although unusual, sometimes happens.
My partner and I were sent for at-work counseling and a trauma therapist was called in. My partner at the time had a very difficult time getting past this incident. We were both eventually offered better jobs at different departments, and although we were no longer working together actively, we kept in touch. Suddenly, I stopped hearing from my friend and former partner. My friends family called me one morning to let me know what my friend had taken their own life, and left a note that stated that they could no longer handle the incident that the two of us were involved with, and that they were sorry.
While I was working in a rural area, I was called as backup to a shooting call one Saturday afternoon. When I arrived, there were police everywhere, and the police officers rushed me into a house where I found a small child on the floor. They instructed me to start life saving procedures. During the time my crew and I were on scene, the child’s mother came home from work and somehow managed to get past the police officers and she walked into the scene. My crew and I were actively doing CPR on her child, and she was not made aware of what had happened. Finally, after working the code for several minutes, I decided to declare the patient deceased. Everyone was escorted out of the house, and the police started their investigation.
The mother of the child came up to me and began to try and drag me by the arm towards the house to help her child. I told her that her child had been shot in the head with a hunting rifle and that there was nothing that we can do to help. I will never forget the look of sheer terror that came across her face. She fell on the grass outside her house in a catatonic, almost comatose state, before she eventually sat up and began moaning and rocking forwards and backwards. We transported her to the hospital where she stayed for a few weeks for psychiatric care before being released.
The worst incident I ever responded to was a report of a house fire at 4 AM during Christmas vacation. Upon arrival on scene, my crew and I were presented with a fully-involved house fire with a family of four trapped in an upstairs bedroom. The house was fully involved, and there was no chance to save the house or its occupants. The decision was made to withhold water until the screaming stopped because by fighting the fire, we would only be prolonging suffering, as the family had no chance whatsoever of surviving. I am forever haunted by their screams being only partially drowned out by the smoke alarms that were sounding. It was reported that the cause of the fire was likely a Christmas tree catching fire at the base of the stairs in the house which caused a massive fire that spread quickly and prevented anyone from escaping the flames. We later found their charred bodies in a pile in the front upstairs bedroom.
Diary entry Thursday, December 2, 2021; the names, locations, departments, and time periods have been omitted from this published article.
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You had more than your share of bad assignments my friend. I can relate to many of them having been a volunteer firefighter/EMT myself. The sights, sounds, smells never go away. There is always something that triggers those memories. I have a hard time watching the Trade Center replay films, knowing what those guys went thru and what was on their minds when they went into those buildings.
My worst was a suicide by a neighbor. I heard the call come over my radio on a Saturday morning and recognized it was the neighbor behind my house. I called the dispatcher and told him to notify Station one that one EMT was on the scene and to roll the Medic as soon as possible. I ran across the yard and entered the house calling out my neighbors name. I heard a woman crying and followed the sounds to the basement where the wife was kneeling over her husband’s body on the floor. There was a .22 caliber revolver nearby. I tried to comfort her and took a quick assessment of her husband’s condition. I felt a weak pulse, weak signs of life, but told her the Medic was on its way and we would do all we could to help. The police got there shortly before the Medic and I gently persuaded the wife to go upstairs with me so I could get some medical history for the hospital – a standard procedure I told her. I didn’t want her to keep taking in all of the trauma going on around her husband if possible.
The Medic crew did their initial assessment, started an IV, and transported him to the hospital where he passed minutes later. At least she didn’t hear him pronounced in her home and have to deal with the coroner asking a lot of questions. Her children arrived to take her to the hospital but whether she made it before he passed, I never found out.
People expect someone to show up and take away all of the pain and bad stuff when they call 911, but never give a thought as to how much those who do show up see on a daily basis. It is a tough job that few appreciate. People have no idea what pain and bad memories emergency responders have.
God bless you my friend. My prayers and thoughts go out to you. You have my support.
This list excludes the industrial accidents that I responded to, where I saw burn victims, and people whose bodies were literally torn apart. I left my job after making Lieutenant. I moved to Vermont and tried joining a local volunteer department (I had job offers from city departments), but it just wasn’t the same, so I left after 3 months. I don’t miss the work, but I miss having my second family.
That’s a lot to cope with
Oh there are some other critical incidents that I will never speak of, let alone write about.
That’s very intense and impressive to read Tom. Makes me value the work you and others do even more.
One may learn to deal with trauma, but as you show here, you cannot just shake everything off. It leaves a mark. And it stays with you..
I don’t have solace, but just wanted to say thank you for sharing!
Thank you for reading!
I am so sorry for what you’ve gone through. I have never experienced any of it myself, so I can’t relate in that way, but I want you to know that some traumas never leave. Some are huge, as yours are, some are much smaller and very personal. But they leave an indelible mark on those unfortunate enough to experience it.
Please also realize that the man in the vehicle that you had to cut out was given no false hope by you. The human body knows when it knows. What you saw in his eyes was probably not what you thought it was. I learned during my lifetime and experiences, that a look like that, no matter what you said to him, did not necessarily convince him he would live, merely that he wouldn’t die trapped in a metal coffin. Sometimes, that’s the greatest gift of them all. And you were able to give him that. Take some splice from that.
You are stronger and braver than I could ever be. After the first you mentioned, I would have had to leave. I couldn’t imagine having a long list of more. The ones you mentioned here were more than enough to show your humanity, and your suffering.
Please understand, my friend, that people do see you and people like you. Most only remember when they need to call 911, or witness something horrific like the World Trade Center and see your bravery as you scale the rubble in search of any life to bring home to loved ones. Some of us see it every day. Even when we are not involved with it.
Around this time of year, Santa goes to the local fire departments and asks if he can ride the big red truck instead of his sleigh for a while. He perches himself on top while the fire fighters drive him around with their lights and sirens on. I do not like this time of year, but since I was a kid, I always believed that Santa was amazing for this offer. People who see the ugly every day just getting to drive around with the sights and sounds of terror and pain meaning something else entirely – the people and children come out and wave to them. No one is hurt in that moment, no one is suffering or terrified or trapped. Everyone is outside waving to a group of people that need to be reminded that there is positive things in this world as much as the people need to be reminded that there are people who deal with the heinous so they don’t have to.
I cannot take away those thoughts, although I wish I could do that for you. All I can do is say Thank You. Thank you for all that you have seen, suffered, and done. Thank you for always being that person who shows up with her cape tucked inside a fire proof coat, and does everything she can to make sure that everyone lives another day. Thank you.
Thank you for your truly amazing comment. I read it, had a good cry, and then sat back down, looked through some pictures of past incidents, and then decided that it was time for me to post a reply.
There are so many things that I had to deal with, and the truth is that while I was strong enough to overcome these things on a physical level, such as being burned, cut, and the numerous close calls that could very well have ended my life or resulted in permanent disability. In the end, it was the emotional toll that was too much for me to handle after 22 years of active service.
I thought that by leaving my job and retiring that the memories would also be left behind, and I foolishly placed all my faith in tomorrow as if the past might be undone. The scars never seem to heal, therapy only digs up the past and brings it to the present, and there are many incidents and things that I have seen that I simply cannot find the words in which to describe what happened.
I try my best to keep busy with projects, and activities, anything to keep my mind focused on a task that distracts me from thinking about the times when I was faced with things that were horrible.
Working at the various fire departments wasn’t overall a bad experience; I miss the camaraderie, the sense of family, and the enormous amount of trust that people placed in my hands and the respect that came along with it. I miss the good times, the parades, the community involvement, teaching fire safety to school children, and the occasional escorting of mothers with their small children through the fire house so that their child could look at all the fire trucks. I miss the parades, the cook-outs, and being on a first-name basis with the local pizza delivery people. I miss going to the grocery store with my crew as we parked out front with our fire engines. If it weren’t for the good times, in all honesty, I never would have lasted.
Tom, I apologize for this late reply. Your comment never reached my comments section. I don’t understand why.
I understand the need to try to find something else to block out the memories that you want to be rid of, and finding there isn’t much chance alone. I understand seeking therapy to help with those terrors and finding just a constant reminder of them. I understand everything you described here, just not on the scale that you are talking about. The things I can relate with are horrors from my own personal life, and not due to 22 years of saving other people.
Don’t get me wrong. The field I work in normally, and love, has had it’s fair share of moments that should have had me waking up in a panic (someone slicing at me with a razor, toilets ripped out of walls and thrown at my head, etc.), but for some reason there was only one incident at that job that gave me nightmares, and it wasn’t anything that really happened to me as much as it was my reaction to it. I withheld my natural reaction, but I came so close… I had the nightmares for a month and the therapy made that worse as well.
So the experiences that I had do not compare with yours (as for me what happened in those jobs for me where not truly traumatic), they all happened when I was not working and making… decisions that were not in my best interest. For me, I had to work through them for self-preservation and to protect those I loved. There was one specifically that created all of those feelings in me and I believed they would consume me. I wanted to seek the sirens and the lights that meant I could be safe again… but I was informed that by seeking that solace, my family would be harmed by persons unknown to me. I believed it. I sought no help.
What worked for me, and what may help ease it, even if only minutely, for you is to realize that despite all the pain and trauma you survived, you were able to save lives. There were bad ones, ones that you couldn’t save – but you are also not a superhero, and there is a machine around you. You may have seen signs, but others with power over that particular situation saw something else, right or wrong. Their failure to see what was right in front of them is NOT your failure. There is literally nothing more that you could have done short of breaking the law yourself.
You ALWAYS did what you could do. When it went side-ways, there was NOTHING that you could have done differently. The responsibility for these situations does not land on you. It never has.
These people have a right to be remembered, but not at the expense of your sanity.
I have found something that works when you lose someone that you honestly feel you shouldn’t have. I do not know your faith, I myself am agnostic. However, there are certain customs across various religions that help me when it comes to those I can’t stop actively mourning.
I Judaism, there is something called Shiva. You sit shiva for 7 days after the death. Mirrors are covered, a piece of cloth is attached to your clothing for you to rend. That sort of thing. They also burn a candle that lasts a week for the deceased. When the light is lit, Shiva starts, and when it goes out, it is over.
The Rosary has also always brought me comfort. It is repetitive and a little time consuming which is exactly what I need/want in the moment.
Writing also helps me a great deal.
Of course this is all tailorable to what will work for you. But for me, I light the Shiva candle, I read a short blurb that I wrote about who I am missing (always writing something new the day before I have decided to do it, so it is not rushed, but it guarantees I do it the next day), and I say the rosary. Sometimes, I’ll even throw in a prayer for the dead. Once my ritual is complete, I spend 5 minutes it silence, with my eyes closed and thinking thoughts about who I am missing – usually the thoughts that haunt my dreams. (When I started I started with 10 minutes). I keep a timer for that part so I don’t go on forever. When it is over, I blow out the candle, put everything away where it belongs, and go through my day. I found that in the beginning this helped only mildly. During daylight hours the day of, the images were gone, but they’d still be there at night. Now, I can get a month free of those demons, day and night. If they get stronger again between the two sessions, I create an extra one.
If nothing else, it’s worth a shot. Research different death rituals for different cultures/religions. Some will speak to you. Create something that is only for this purpose. The object is not to recreate their funerals, but to pay respects to those that were not able to survive.
I truly wish you the best.
Wow Thomas, you’ve been through more than I could ever have imagined. Makes my woes seem very small. I just remember what Mr. Rogers used to say: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” And that was you.
It is a lot to handle for one person. Most people I have worked with didn’t have the strength or fortitude to last nearly as long as I did (22 years). My career has changed me as a person in ways that nobody ever could have possibly imagined or anticipated. I require everyone in my car to wear their seat belts, I own a single-story house, with exits clearly marked with glow in the dark signage, and have smoke/CO detectors in every room, along with commercial grade fire extinguishers. People think I’m crazy but in my defense, they haven’t seen the things I have.