By my math, this should be one of the least-read stories of the year. Fewer people working downtown and the surrounding areas, fewer people walking cold streets…how many issues of The Pulse could be being read with chilled fingers grasping cold pages in these high winds with these ridiculous temperatures in the teens?
So, I’ve decided to tell you something a bit more personal than usual, being a smaller and more personal crowd, after all.
Firefighter Marc Gold was once quoted by the Associated Press as saying he “is haunted by the trauma of the parents and the faces of the police who emerged from the building,” speaking of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. (“Sandy Hook: Firefighters try to shield memorial from storm,” published Dec. 20, 2012).
"I saw the faces of the most hardened paramilitary, SWAT team guys come out, breaking down, saying they've just never seen anything like this," said Gold, a member of the Hawleyville Volunteer Fire Department. "What's really scary to me is I'm really struggling, and I didn't even see the carnage."
This line obviously had some impact on me, mostly because after all the debriefings I’ve had from all the tragic events I’ve witnessed that had mandatory post-incident counseling, I’ve never seen or heard of someone on “the outside” putting it quite that way.
I remember my first mandatory session as a young officer, after I interrupted a crime that resulted in the death of an offender. It was another cop (two actually) that did the shooting and I felt terrible—terrible that I put those guys in that position. I felt that way even after the counseling that accurately told me this was not necessarily the case, given the nature of our jobs.
The other eight “post-traumatic incident stress debriefings” over the next two years involved the deaths of fellow officers, children, and horrors that tried to compete with those…and after a while, it seemed like I was always just a radio call away from another emptied-out church or donated corporate conference room where bad coffee and decent donuts would be served by well-meaning counselors and volunteers telling me how to “process my feelings.” Just imagine where my head was at during those years as a young cop.
Hell, I’ll just tell you: It wound up divorced and spending most nights on an academy mate's couch while my post-marital house sat empty for months on end with me unable to live inside it for reasons relating to this and my own, unrelated, emotional retardation.
I’ll even go one further and give you details on where my head was at: Inside a damn bottle. No questions in there, just a re-routing of the wires and a numbing of burnt senses. Thank God for it, too—I would have said at the time, anyway. It’s how I ended each counseling session, and seemed a good bookend to the vomit I gave up before those sessions, such were the scenarios.
“With anguished parents searching for their children,” the article quoted above went on to say, “Firefighter Peter Barresi prepared to receive the wounded, but a paramedic came back empty-handed, underscoring the totality of the massacre. There was no one wounded to save; they were simply dead.”
First responders arrived here knowing they weren’t able to stop it, but maybe they were able to mitigate the damage; reports like this left that a closed door, too. Imagine the frustration; the helplessness.
"Most of my emotions are guilt, guilt because we weren't able to do something, guilt for the accolades I'm getting," said Gold, now a 53-year-old father of three. "It doesn't feel good when people say nice things to me. It feels good for a second, and then you feel guilty for feeling good."
In the counseling sessions, this was known as “survivors’ guilt,” usually reserved for surviving an incident that took the life of a co-worker. But for times like these? Again, a perfect stranger nailed it.
"It would be ludicrous to say this wouldn't have some kind of permanent effect on anybody who dealt with it," said George Epstein, operations director for the Connecticut Critical Incident Stress Management Team.
It does…but we survive, eventually to be made whole again. How do you think I ever got this gig? I wrote like ol’ Pink did: To fill in all…the empty…spaces.
We cope. We do. But I haven’t seen the topic put so well in quite some time. The magnitude of such a now-seemingly-distant tragedy would be the dynamite it took to do so, I suppose. Whatever the case? I appreciate your ear in this, on this cold and windy night. Take care. I know I will…now.