It seems to me that this annual occurrence begins when I see multiple photos of firemen and emergency responders in action. It’s not that the images are graphic or extremely disturbing, yet they somehow trigger the same two thoughts year after year. I was reminded of that oddity while the 2014 Salute to Volunteer Firefighters was being compiled.
The first image that flashes to life is 36 years old and it remains as vivid as the day it occurred. While I did not deal with the event personally, it had a profound impact on me and our small town. I have mentioned it before because it was tragic as five young men – all friends of mine – died in a single automobile accident.
It involved a Camaro, a sharp corner and a bad decision. The car left the road at a high rate of speed, flew across a ravine and struck the bank on the opposite side head on. The impact buckled the vehicle in the middle like a pop can. It then flipped forward and landed upside down on top of the opposite bank.
Thankfully, all the occupants had been extracted by firemen and EMTs by the time I saw the wreck. However, the snapshot of the mangled car remains in my mind. It is the same image as a photograph that appeared in the local newspaper as a grim reminder of how multiple lives can be drastically changed in a moment. The accident was memorable for all the wrong reasons, but it was firemen’s accounts of dealing with the aftermath that really shook me up. I felt sorry for the guys who were the first on the scene as they knew all the victims. As time goes on, I more fully appreciate what emergency responders go through in such situations.
The second video that replays in my mind is a multi-vehicle accident that occurred on the Trans-Canada Highway about 13 years ago. Two new buses, a hog liner loaded with pigs and another transport truck collided. The two bus drivers died in the wreckage which caught fire and sent black smoke billowing upward. The inky plume was like a death marker that could be seen from many miles away.
The accident scene was like something out of a science-fiction novel as pigs had escaped from the overturned hog liner and were wandering around in an injured, dazed and confused state. I vividly recall firemen telling me not to get too close to the buses because it was not a pretty sight as the drivers had not been rescued and were in the smoldering vehicles. That was advice that I really appreciated.
After the injured were taken to hospital and the fire was totally extinguished, the trapped and injured hogs all had to be put down. That was a strange and dangerous job that went to veteran fireman and hunter Charlie Blakley.
Overall, I was not mentally prepared for an accident of that magnitude. While I was in close proximity to the wreckage, I stayed at a safe distance as I did not want to get in the way of emergency workers – my role was to use a camera to document the accident. I did not get personally involved and had no attachment to any of the victims, yet I found myself experiencing emotions that totally shocked me as I drove back to Maple Creek.
I had been taught well as a young boy that a man never cries and never shows much emotion since that is a sign of weakness. However, I broke down on the way back to town and wept uncontrollably for several minutes. I did not understand why I was acting like a wimp. The only thing I knew for sure is I had a gut-full of grief (for people I had never met) and it came to the surface like a tidal wave. I was very thankful that there was no one with me to witness my unmanly conduct. It took quite a while before I finally confided in my wife and told her how I reacted after seeing such destruction. It was then that I began to realize the importance of debriefing after a traumatic event.
For me, it took quite a while before I learned to share my feelings, my true feelings, even with my wife because doing so made me feel like less of a man. I had been conditioned to believe that a man should not share his deepest thoughts or express emotions of grief or hurt. I have since learned that is a pile of crap! Internalizing grief and painful emotions is not only unhealthy, if left unchecked it can cause mental or physical illness. Debriefing (and sharing) is important and must sometimes be supplemented with professional assistance in order to find constructive ways of dealing with negative thoughts and emotions. It is essential to good health.
We may not be able to erase images from our mind, but we do not have to be haunted by them. It can be terribly difficult to deal with situations that no human being should have to face, yet that is what our emergency responders do with regularity and they deserve our utmost thanks and respect.