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.