Preparing for the Tough Calls

On Aug. 2, I was driving home after a typical Monday when I heard a call on the radio: “Reported drowning on Red River.” The incident was on my way home, so I decided to respond. I had no idea that I was minutes away from one of the darkest days of my career.

A Devastating Scene
As I pulled up to the scene, I met my assistant, who showed me through 100 yards of heavy woods to the scene. Along the way, he said something to me that stopped me in my tracks: Six people were reported missing, and they were all children.

Once at the scene, I got a quick size-up from the incident commander (IC). I could see several of our personnel in the water wearing personal flotation devices (PFDs) and with ropes in place, about 25 feet from the shore. Time was lapsing;  I knew we would soon be shifting from a rescue to a recovery operation.

The IC was a diver, so I took over command to allow him to join the water recovery operations. I began setting up the logistics and support for a long night operation. 

Over the next 3 hours, our divers, assisted by our neighboring fire department, entered, exited and re-entered the last area where the six children were seen. One by one the bodies were recovered from the river’s murky floor. At one point I asked the original dive crew to go home as we called in another company. The captain spoke up: “If it’s all the same, chief, we’d like to stay and finish the job until they’re all home.” That attitude is what I love about the fire service. Of course, they all stayed until the last child was located at 2202 HRS.

We did not want to take the bodies out through the woods where the families were waiting and an onslaught of local and national media had gathered. The coroner was on the scene, so we made the decision to load the bodies aboard the three dive boats and transport them up-river to a city boat launch several miles away, where officials would be waiting to transport them.

The Aftermath
Once all the bodies were gone, I handed off command to my deputy chief and walked with the mayor, coroner and representatives from other involved agencies to speak with the families and then address the media.

The children were siblings from two families. None of them could swim, including their parents who could only watch helplessly from the shore. They all went into the water to rescue their cousin who had stepped off a 4′ river floor to a 25′ drop-off. Remarkably, the cousin was saved by citizen bystanders.

Never in my career had I seen a loss of precious life on this scale, and as bad as I and my personnel were feeling, I knew we could not fathom the families’ pain. We called in our fire and police department chaplain services, giving us about six to eight clergy on the scene. We would need them all.

Next, the media was waiting. We knew whatever was said had to be right because the magnitude of the event was now national, bringing questions of how and why.

I left the scene devastated, exhausted and mentally drained. When I got home, I hugged my kids tighter than I think I ever had, and I prayed for the families.

What We Learned
As an officer in the fire service, no matter how large or small your department is, you may eventually respond to a call like this. Here are a few tips to make sure you’re ready before and after the incident:  

  • Train for the multiple roles you may play–IC, public information officer, logistics and planning, etc.  
  • Don’t be afraid to call on and use every available resource. If you call too many, you can always send them home, but you don’t want to be caught short.
  • Even as a tough officer, you’re human, and these type of events have a lasting emotional effect. Ensure that you and your personnel have access to professional resources to help them cope.
  • Turn a negative into a positive. In Shreveport, the fire department is now heavily involved with the new “Stewart-Warner Project Swim,” named in honor of the six children. This public/private venture provides resources for any child to learn to swim.

In our line of work, the dark days are unavoidable, but if you take the right steps before, during and after the call, even the darkest day can be made a little brighter.

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