A few readers have encouraged me to write about my time working in emergency medical services on the ambulance and as a volunteer firefighter. I was hesitant at first, mainly because I’m not sure if anyone would be interested, but also because writing a story about yourself in which a stranger dies of some horrific cause seems slightly ghoulish. However, I think it’s important for people to realize what the day–to–day life of a first responder is and what it isn’t.

The worst day of my career happened just a week after my 21st birthday. It was a Thursday, around the middle of April in the Florida Panhandle. I remember the date so well because my birthday had been such a big event, especially at Florida State University. Although the school has excellent academics and I was lucky to have some top-notch instructors, turning 21 was more of a milestone at that place than graduating.

It was around 3:00 p.m. and I had just returned to my tiny apartment after my last class. I was debating going for a run or taking a nap, leaning towards nap, when my fire department pager went off. Calls in the middle of the day were unusual for our small department, which served a town of about 6,000 residents roughly 20 miles away from where I lived.

It was a car accident on a patch of country dirt road I didn’t know. It took me nearly 30 minutes to get there but on the way, I kept tabs on what was happening through my radio. It was a single vehicle flipped onto its roof. Four or five patients were being transported to the hospital as trauma alerts, and there was one “signal 7” reported—which meant a fatality.

When I pulled up, it was almost unreal. The car had flipped near a ditch, and about a dozen or so fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars were on the scene. That was typical. What wasn’t typical were the approximately 30 onlookers on the side of the road, nearly all of which were crying. I parked and stepped into my gear, donning my boots and pants, then my jacket, and finally my plastic helmet.

As I walked towards the wreckage to check in with the officer–in–charge—I think it was one of our lieutenants—I noticed a large elderly woman on her knees, crying hysterically and yelling, “Why? WHY?” as I passed her.

When I found my lieutenant, he confirmed there was a fatality still trapped underneath the car. He told me it was a 10-year-old girl, and showed me where you could see her feet sticking out from the wreckage—white sneakers, trimmed with little white socks with lace on cuffs.

We weren’t sure how many people had been in the vehicle. Someone suggested we comb the nearby woods to try to find anyone who might have been ejected during the accident. I walked with a police officer and searched the area. I looked down at one point and thought I found a finger. I told the cop and bent over to pick it up, but it was just a wooden stick. I held it up and he laughed at me.

The ambulance crews were still loading people into their boxes. The patients seemed okay from what I could tell. I helped load one, though I don’t remember if it was a man or a woman, but I remember they were all upset and crying. The medics were quick to package them and leave, and a few remaining cops tended to the crowd. The firefighters gathered to make a game plan.

Someone asked if we were going to move the car to remove the body, but we were told highway patrol had to arrive first to conduct an investigation. So we waited, sitting on the back of a truck next to wreckage, trying not to look at the unmoving white shoes, which contrasted sharply with the orange dirt. Shortly thereafter, another truck arrived from a neighboring fire department with the heavy equipment necessary to lift the car enough to pull out the trapped girl.

We tried to keep the mood light. I remembered laughing at some joke that I’m sure wasn’t funny. I dipped tobacco at the time, but forgot my can at my house, so I bummed a pinch from another firefighter. It was Grizzly Fine-Cut Straight in a bright red can. Odd the details you remember from days like these.

The investigators finally showed up. There were three or four of them, and they brought over a handful of recruits from the highway patrol’s academy which was nearby. They quickly set about taking measurements and pictures of the scene. They set up little white disks at different points on the car, either to mark evidence or to gauge distance.

Hours went by and it was getting late. The sky transitioned from blue to orange. The crowd dispersed. Without fanfare or even a nod, members of the highway patrol left. Only the firefighters and one lone sheriff’s deputy remained.

I thought we would move the car soon. I dreaded it but at the same time, I was anxious for it to happen so we could get it over with. We all decided on what jobs we were going to do—I was to grab the body and slide it out from under the vehicle, but we had to wait until a funeral home transport vehicle was available.

For some reason, I pictured that the funeral home would send a hearse. Instead, it was a blue minivan. To this day, I have yet to meet someone more professional as the funeral home representative. He talked with us, telling us how it would work, where he would position the body bag on the ground and what he wanted each of us to do. Looking back on it, I suppose he had a lot of experience in situations like these and knew how to put us all at ease.

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Finally, about four hours, we began the gruesome task of moving the vehicle.

We took our positions around it. We slid black airbags underneath four corners of it. The air pump kicked on, and the car began to rise as the bags inflated. Suddenly, the passenger door window burst a few inches from my head. I thought it was a gunshot and the sound startled me. A few shards of glass peppered my helmet. The surprised jacked up my heart rate, and I felt almost panicky.

I stuck both hands under the car and felt for the body. I located it and tried to grab on to what I thought were the girl’s shoulders. I pulled, but my hands slipped on the blood. The body was so broken, it was no longer intact. The other firefighters screamed for me to pull it out, and one dropped down next to me and together, we pulled the lifeless form out from under the car.

He gathered the girl in his arms and placed her as gently as he could into the body bag. I knelt to start zipping the bag, but the sheriff’s deputy stopped me so he could take a picture for the investigation.

I tried not to look, so I stared down at one of my knees. It was covered in blood, which was also dripping down my leg. I felt hot, and really wanted to get out of there.

Two firefighters stood in front of us holding up a large, blue tarp to block the scene from anyone who might be watching. We zipped the bag and placed it on the funeral home’s stretcher. The attendant fastened two buckles and laid a Disney-themed blanket on top of the bag. We walked with him to the van and help load the body into the van. He closed the back door, said his goodbyes and left.

I’ll admit—I was pretty shaken. It hadn’t been the sight, but the feel, of the girl’s shoulders in my hands that really freaked me out. Another firefighter drove my truck back to the station.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, I’m good. I just want to go home,” I said.

We rode in silence.

When we arrived, some of the senior officers from the department were there, as well as a pastor from a local church. They ushered us into the large training room where a few chairs were assembled in a circle. It was time for a mandatory critical stress debriefing.

I don’t remember what the pastor talked about. I know he asked what I was thinking and I told him I didn’t want to be there—that the whole ordeal of sitting around and talking about it made me more anxious, and that I wanted to go home. I think at one point we prayed.

I eventually took off my gear and left it at the station to be cleaned. I drove back to my apartment and decided to go for a run. I think I ran five miles that night, replaying the scenario over and over. When I finished, I felt better, and a friend of mine came over and listened to me talk about the call for about an hour.

It’s been eight years, and I still think about that day. In fact, I don’t think a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about it and the other bad days I had doing this work. Although it sticks with me—and certainly changed me—I don’t think I’m worse off because of it. I try hard not to let those bad days affect me negatively.

In some ways, I feel responsible for them. Not that I caused any harm, but because no one asked me to be there. I had volunteered, I had asked to be there, and did so knowing full well what the consequences could be. To this day, I’m proud of the guys who responded to that call and the job we did. I think each of us went out of our way to show as much respect as we could.

People ask me about it sometimes, but every conversation goes pretty much the same.

“That’s really sad,” they say.

All I can reply is, “Yeah. It really is.”