"Death keeps no calendar" (English proverb)
Scared? I’ve never been so scared. I have never been so scared in 17 years on the department. I have never been so scared in all my life. Today, I found out just how scared I can get.
We say “I almost died out there” when discussing shopping conditions at the Mall during the holidays, or when trying to get through some session at a gym, but rarely do we mean it. Rarely do we get the chance to witness the approach of death at high speed, and I can assure you that in a lifetime, I never imagined that the ghost of the hereafter would arrive in the form of a Nissan SUV.
As routine as life in a firehouse can become, every so often something occurs that will rattle every firefighter to their core, in a way that is not served honestly by words. The wide array of responses to every conceivable emergency dictates that every now and again you’re gonna come up against a new shade of chaos; in the absence of adrenaline, though, the shadow of complacency begins to grow long, and that is a dangerous place to find yourself. And there really is no more dynamically dangerous a playing field than a busy highway.
This morning our Ladder Truck responded to yet another accident out on another busy highway, the product of poor weather and whatever recipe of conditions that lead to mangled metal and plastic and order. Traffic, backed up for a long ways, made the approach challenging yet manageable, hoping as we creep past the stalled motorists that they’re not suddenly inclined to yank the wheel into us, hoping that we can get through quickly, get a sense of order back to our little corner of the world. The Incident Commander issued us a routine assignment, to block oncoming traffic for our own safety and to assist with patient care. The pissing mist was turning to rain as we walked up to the scene, a fitting November morning complete with mumbling under my breath about a sense of deja vu.
The other crew was already working the accident scene, with EMS there as well, getting ready to package a patient. All eyes were on the traffic in the lane approaching us, the highway gawkers an ever-present threat to safety, ready to compound chaos with more in their unintentional efforts to feast their eyeballs on somebody’s worst day.
I don’t know why I was looking the other way, down the other lanes of highway right then. I don’t know why the Firefighter from the other rig was crossing right in front of me right then, bucket of oil-dry in his hands, ready to clean up some spilled fluids. All that I can recall is that I saw the SUV break away from all of the traffic, from the slick road going what seemed like an absurdly high rate of speed, and he was coming right to me. I cannot unsee him heading towards me; I cannot unforget that in that moment I was sure that I was going to get hit and killed, alongside my coworker. I can recall that for a millisecond I was thinking two things:
“Please don’t hit anyone else, because he’s going to hit me. Don’t let him hit anyone else, not my guys.”
“I don’t want to die. I am going to die, this is it….and I am not ready and I just want my boys, my sons, my world to know that I am thinking of them as I am about to die, holy shit this is it.”
Seems like alot to think in a millisecond, but the mind has a way of giving you that clarity in that timeframe. And somewhere from outside of my mind, I yelled at the guy crossing in front of me, and I don’t know why and I don’t know how, but instinctively I grabbed him and pulled him into me, some deep-seated survival instinct getting keyed up from somewhere unknown. I still wasn’t quick enough, and I cannot forget the sound of the car hitting either my coworker or the 5 gallon bucket, it was so fast, so loud, and suddenly he was out of my grasp, and down on the ground, and how didn’t I get taken out, too, and what the hell is happening, now, as grass and mud and car parts are getting scattered further, and dammitalltohell, I do NOT want to die out here. My coworker gets up from the ground, shaken, shocked, eyes blown wide open and muttering about being okay, when clearly he isn’t and all of the sudden, the Nissan has swerved around us all and come to a stop and every single person on the scene is seeing what’s going on and all I can think of is that I have, indeed, seen the ghost, and I don’t want to do this. A motormouth on a slow day, I’m without words. I am shaking. The medics and other crew members turn their attention to the Firefighter, who’s leg is swelling up, and is now lying down, and I am afraid to look back, afraid because if I see who was driving the SUV, I will snap into a vicious reality and lose control, afraid to look back because I irrationally think that there will be more cars coming across the median to hit all of us and really end it, this time. I watched with certainty our own demise approaching, I shouted and reacted, but not with the calm we would hope, no just some sort of involuntary ritual, a deep seated desire to protect rearing up out of nowhere.
Within the blink of another eye, Chiefs are on-scene, PD has arrived and while my co-workers all continued to work the scene professionally, efficiently, with an urgent diligence, I couldn’t speak but for vacantly gazing out towards the direction of what we’d just seen. I was shaking, and not from the increasing rate of rain falling on us, I was shaking from the inside. I cannot stop the loop from playing over and over, the sounds, the onrush of the moment before an impact that wouldn’t come, the look as my Brother was tossed sideways. We stood there in the rain, all of us, waiting to be released, knowing how close all of our kids came to being without fathers, a foot or less from an entirely different story being written.
Inevitably came the time for us to leave, all information passed along, my coworker rushed to the ER with what would be reported as non life-threatening injuries (read here), which while true was not true, because our sense of order in the chaos had been, indeed, threatened. Soaked, we limped back home to our firehouse, where our Union brothers waited alongside Chief Officers to check on us, a deep and abiding sense of loyalty to our own manifesting with hugs and ears and the comfort of just belonging. The Chief himself arrived with an appropriately huge cup of coffee, knowing already the facts and suspecting the toll it would take, knowing how much comfort I would take from as much coffee I could drown in. We had people at the hospital, people at the firehouse, people in every form of communication, checking all of us, knowing just how close a call we endured. I am so grateful for the brotherhood of fire, a family of men & women bonded by the narrow paths we must tread together as one.
Hours later, reports filed and the return to service fulfilled, I will replay it over and over, and I will feel the overwhelming dump of adrenaline that will overload my senses slightly. A shower, a call, finally, to the mother of my boys to plead with her to hug them extra tightly for me today, for although inevitable as death may be, I have been reassured that there is work to be done, and I am not ready. As so many questions have arisen of late in terms of what path this life is leading, as surrender to new realities has been riddled with doubts, self and otherwise, in some small, weird way, purpose has been whispered back into me. Today we cheated our own demise a little, through a split second of grace and little more. And as I slowly begin to steady, hours later, into calm, the familiar tones of the firehouse call out once more. Another accident, another chance to do better by someone, and one more chance to be here, still. Scared to death, grateful to be alive and working that fine line somewhere in between.