First responders often relive trauma again and again

Published 6:11 pm Saturday, March 30, 2024

I’m going to tell you a story about the hardest situation I ever covered, and I’ll warn you ahead of time, it isn’t for the faint of heart.

Around 12 years ago while I was the editor of a newspaper in south Alabama, we had a fire in the middle of the night at an older
home in the not-so-great part of town. We would find out later that the oven had been used as a heating device and the home caught fire with three young children, who had been left in the house alone, asleep inside.

By the time I made it to the scene, the home was already fully involved and a crowd of some of the most desperate people I’ve ever seen had gathered in the streets. Most of them were neighbors who knew the people who lived in the house and they were utterly helpless to do anything but watch as firefighters tried everything they could to find the three children inside. Tragically, none of the children survived the fire.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

As horrible as the situation was, what stuck with me the most from that terrible night was a firefighter who pulled the last of the three kids from that house. He carried that little boy, limp in his arms, across the yard and handed him to a paramedic. This all happened within arm’s reach of me, so I had a very clear view of details I wish I hadn’t seen. But, as the fireman handed the little boy over, one thing was very clear: That man would never be the same.

I don’t know if that poor child was already gone in that moment, or if we were witnessing his last minutes on this earth, but I do know that firefighter understood the gravity of the situation more deeply than the rest of us. He had held it together and done his job, but in the exact second that child left his arms, it was like everything in him gave out. He literally hit his knees and the look on his face is seared into my memory, so much so that I’ve had to take breaks between sentences to compose myself several times now.

To this day, I don’t know that man’s name. I don’t know if he was a father, if he still works as a first responder, or anything else
about him. I do know that if he is still on this earth, he remembers that night more vividly than I, and likely wishes more than I do that he could let those memories fade away. I also know he has likely been called to perform that same task many times since.

And I can’t imagine how he must feel. I know I think about it every time I drive to cover a fire. Is this the next one of those? Do I have to witness that again? And I’m just a reporter. I can’t fathom having to do what that firefighter did time and again. It’s traumatic. And trauma is exactly what we ask these men and women to endure over and over. And they do, oftentimes coming back to daily life as if nothing out of the ordinary occurred.

I have seen a lot of difficult things doing this job. I have witnessed my share of murder scenes, car accidents, fires and other calamities. I’ve witnessed an execution and talked to grieving family members in their most vulnerable moments. But, nothing has ever cut as deeply for me as that exact point in time on that night. I’ll never lose that image of a broken firefighter, finished doing his job for the moment, but mentally and emotionally drained in what would only be a brief reprieve before he would be asked to do it again. And again. And again.

These people — the first responders that take care of us every day — deserve our thanks, our respect, and our love and under-
standing. It’s a job that defies logic and goes against human instinct. What special people it must take to accept that responsibility!

Blake Bell is the general manager and executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. He can be reached at