Monday, September 28, 2009

The Longest Ride

Years ago, our Firefighter's Association (back then it was called the Firemen's Association) published a yearbook. We sold advertising for the book as well as the books themselves. The Association never made a ton of money on them, but it did provide us a large portion of our association's budget.

If you were to find one, from about 1986 or so and turned to page 35 or so, you would find a full page photograph. The background of the photograph shows a fenced in yard area, strewn with debris. In the foreground of the photo, you might see a male adult wrapped in what appears to be a sheet. The focal point of the picture is a hand and wrist, clad in a turnout coat, pouring a bottle of saline onto the sheet wrapped man. The hand and turn-out clad wrist belong to me.

That was the next to last yearbook that we ever produced. It was the only time that any part of me made it into an action shot, fortunately for all of us my face can't be seen. A photographer from the local paper was on scene and snapped the picture.

I was riding a two-person BLS squad that day, a Saturday I believe. The call had come in as a structure fire with explosion. Two engines had arrived before we did. It was one of the engine crews who had found the two victims wandering around in the back yard. They handed the pair off to us and continued the job of extinguishing the small fire.

The man shown in the picture was in his late twenties or early thirties. He was horribly burned, the first seriously burned person that I had ever seen, let alone treated. The smell of burned hair was oppressive, even in the open air of the back yard. I am embarrassed to admit that I thought that he might have been a black man, as his hair was tightly coiled against his scalp, his skin - at least what I could see, was an ashen gray hue. I soon learned that he was a white man, likely as fair skinned as I.

The patient was shivering and in enough pain that he was groaning. This one was assigned to me.

My partner took the second patient. This one was a little boy, two or three years old. He was crying uncontrollably. Some first and second degree burns were visible on his face, near the corner of his small mouth. Some of his clothing was burned, I don't remember the rest of his injuries.

As we treated them in the back yard, the press photographer appeared, snapping the image. After a short while, our patients were loaded into the ambulance and off to the hospital we went. As we had two critical patients, the medic on the ambulance asked me to ride with the patients to the hospital.

My patient shivered and groaned all of the way to the hospital, despite the pain medication that the medic had administered to him. Between groans and the occasional shriek of agony, he was able to tell us that he was in pain, that there had been an explosion. He asked about his son and expressed concern about his condition.

His son screamed and cried most of the way, his pain compounded by his inability to understand what had happened to him. Had he known what had happened,  perhaps he would have screamed louder.

Our destination was a burn center located twenty miles way. Protocol stated that burn patients were to be transported to the closest facility, stabilized, then transferred to the burn center. The reality was that the closest facility usually wanted little do with seriously burned patients and often had them transported directly to the burn center, once base station contact was made.

Although twenty miles may not seem like far away, the sounds and smells made the ride seem much longer. Probably the longest ambulance ride I ever made. Long enough that I still remember it to this day. What I remember more however is what I discovered when I returned to the scene, an hour or so later.

My partner followed me to the hospital in the squad, allowing me to arrive back at the house shortly after the investigators. At that time, we had several full time investigators who responsible for determining fire cause and origin. They also performed follow-up investigations and arrested arson suspects.

I enjoyed working with them, assisting them with digging out burned out rooms or cellars and assisting them with sketches and taking notes.

We arrived back at the scene just as they were starting to take photographs. They were meticulous, starting their photography at the outside of the structure, moving toward the inside and finally to the area of origin.

Although I never saw the photographs, I can tell you what they documented. They documented the window coverings, glass and wood blown into the yard and the debris of our treating the two burn victims. The next couple of photos likely imaged the the rear wall of the structure, blown outward several feet from the house by the force of the blast.

I am sure the pictures then documented the contents of the house blown about by the blast and the ashes of the resulting small fires. The sheets of drywall pushed down from the ceiling in several of the rooms were probably captured in the images as was heating unit in the attic space. The burned bedding in the master bedroom was photographed and the areas that appeared to be shielded from the blast and the flash fire.

The investigators were lucky on this one, the flash fire and small fires mostly self extinguished or just smoldered until our arrival. The home didn't sustain much fire damage at all, despite the severe blast damage.

That made the next series of photos much easier to take. I am quite sure they showed the stove moved out from the wall in the kitchen, the gas line disconnected from the stove and poked through the wall into the bedroom. They also showed a crescent wrench laying on the floor between the stove and the wall, right beneath the open gas cock.

The investigators were able to determine that the father disconnected the gas line and pushed it through the wall. The plan was to turn on the gas, lay down for a nap with his son and never wake up. Apparently, there was a divorce and a nasty custody dispute, one that the father no longer wanted to fight.

What the father failed to account for is that the gas was lighter than air and it migrated to the attic where it found the pilot light in the heating unit. Once a combustible fuel - air mixture was attained, it ignited with explosive force causing the flash fire which burned our patients and caused the damage to the home.

What was planned to be a painless murder suicide turned out to be a painful attempted murder. Charges were never filed however, as the suspect spent several days in the hospital before finally succumbing to his self induced injuries.I was told the child would make a complete recovery, although some scarring was likely.

The child is in his late twenties now. I sincerely hope he has no recollection of the event. I don't know what his relatives tell him when he asks about his father, I don't know what would be worse, the truth or a lie.

Thus began my very real hatred of people who injure kids.

Thanks for reading.



  1. What a horrible tale, all to familiar to those of us in the "saving lives" professions.... I had one last night I am trying to come to terms with... why the babies?

  2. Thank you for writing. Thank you for taking care of both the innocent and the guilty.

  3. I have tons of snipets of calls that I ran in my memory bank. Just tons.
    But there are 3 calls that I ran as a paramedic that I carry with me very vividly still to this day. Of course they all involved children. I've started stories about them, but I'm not quite ready to finish them yet. They broke my heart.

    I only worked BSO 911 dispatch for a year and fortunately only one of those calls got me. But they had this huge debriefing and process with counselors that they required us to go thru. It helped immensly.

    Thanks for the post Capt.

  4. Above all, I admire your strength and restraint. You are burdened with the task of often cleaning up the aftermath of others' tragedies... or running right into the midst of them.