**WARNING – Seriously this is a real WARNING** – the below post contains some very graphic language, and depictions of traumatic, tragic and disturbing events including death and destruction. Please read at your own discretion**
Updated and cleaned up this post from 2013, changed it to past tense and editied the content, spelling, grammar etc..
I don’t want to relive this day, but I do, year after year, holiday after holiday. In my dreams, in my waking hours, watching the news, movies, pretty much anything can trigger the memories. I am leaving out the names and some of the details to protect the innocent (and the guilty as well) but the moral of the story and it’s real life effect , life changing for myself and many others, is true and it STILL happens daily.
I certainly don’t want to write about it and relive it with words on paper, but I think it’s a story that needs to be told.
My HOPE, for anyone who reads this – DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE – PERIOD!!! Your poor judgment affects many more people than just you or the people you kill or maim!
All the good we put out into the world sends ripples. The Bad does as well. The effect of even a single traumatic event can send out ripples that you will never know about. Some may change to positive for others to learn from, but some may turn into huge waves of grief and depression and pain.
The events depicted below occurred 14 years ago, New Year’s Eve 2002 – New Year’s Day 2003.
On the night of this call I’d been on the fire department for 2 year. I still had a damn “T” for trainee on my helmet. When I joined there weren’t enough people for a formal class, it was show up, get my gear and start going to drills and calls on my first day. I had some doozie calls! Some good , some terrible. BIood and guts, domestic violence, gun shots, ATV accidents, car accidents, house fires, barn fires, arsons, tummy aches, febrile seizures etc… In 2 years I’d seen a lot that I never saw up close in war. I saw death and accidents and terrible things but from a “safe-ish” distance. I was in communications for most of it so I sent and received the messages mostly. I also did some Military Police work that got me a little closer. Onboard a ship everyone is a firefighter and a first aid person so you get the training in that aspect of the Fire Service but unless you’re in hand to hand combat on the ground you don’t see what Fire Fighters and Police see every single day
Every day of their careers first responders see violence, trauma, heartbreak, grief, pain, more pain than you can imagine. The emotional pain of a mother losing a child to SIDS, or the bloodcurdling pain of a new amputee who just ran their motorcycle into a guard rail. Don’t get me wrong there are plenty of great moments too. Childbirth, helping someone in need who thought they were dying but were really ok, helping someone who is really dying find comfort in their passing and helping their family cope as well. But, it all takes a toll. Every first responder has “mechanisms” for dealing with the good and the bad, but if you find me one seasoned firefighter or police officer that hasn’t been affected by the calls they go on, the things they see and do then I’ll show you a liar or a completely heartless shell who is in the job for the wrong reasons. You do have to be emotionally hard at times saving up your pain until you get home. Sometimes you have to vomit after a call but you find a way to choke it down until you are out of sight of others and back at the station. There have been on many a call where I came home and completely broke down in tears and others where I had to puke my brains out and shower for an hour.
Our Department was still 100% volunteer, the last of its kind in King County, Washington. We trained and worked with other departments and we’re were part of the best EMS system in the world. Most all of us had regular jobs, the Fire Service was on top of that. We drilled once a week and more for EMTs and officers. Back then, we were dispatched via VHF pagers that were set to an always listening mode. When our specific tones were sent by dispatch the pager goes off (to wake the dead) and then turns into a one way scanner. You hear the voice of dispatch telling you where to go and the type of call.
After hearing the call you push the button to reset it, grab your scanner, along with your gear and barrel out the door to your truck (all firefighters had trucks back then) and head to your station, listening to the scanner for any further info on your call. You get to the station and jump in a rig ( Engine, rescue truck or aid car depending on what was there and what the call was) and respond on the radio to say you’re on the way. Lights, sirens and off you go. Here’s what our pagers sounded like ( and yes we also have the sirens you hear in the background on top of the roofs of our fire stations that go off for every call)
Back to New Year’s eve 2002 – My kids were young, Easton was only 7 so we watched Dick Clark’s rockin’ New Year’s eve on TV and celebrated early with Martinellis sparkling cider to ring in the New Year with New York. Put the kids to bed then off to bed early ourselves. I didn’t drink at all back then I had put all my energy into training dogs and horses and getting that damn “T” off of my helmet. I’d studied all the books, done extra training, been to EMT school, anything I could do to get the Chief to take the “T” off. We had a book to get Senior Firefighters to sign off that you knew your stuff, I’d done that, but I never asked for the “T” to come off, little did I know it would be coming off tomorrow. I think I’d rather have the T…….
The pager goes off. I launch out of bed as it’s on the dresser across the room. I grab it out of the charger and I hear “Engine 88, Engine 89, Aid 88, respond on Fire 3 for an injury accident at Southeast 320th and Kent-Kangley road”. That’s right here! (I lived on SE 314th) it’s between my house and the fire station. Since I’m still technically a “trainee” I’m not allowed to go to scenes directly yet, I have to go to the station and get a unit or get into a unit and respond from there. But here’s the dilemma, I could go to the main road and turn the opposite way of the accident and drive 10 minutes to our other station on the far end of the district knowing that the rigs would all already be gone, or I can turn the right way (left) through the accident scene to get to my station.
Thankfully I have all my gear with me, but no radio. I get in my bunker pants/boots ( I forgot my lucky socks or any socks for that matter) I pull on my shirt and suspenders grab my coat, helmet and keys and run out the door to the truck. I can hear the horns from the station going off. I fire up my faithful Ford F-150 and fly around my driveway and down the dirt road we lived on…out to Kent-Kangley and take a left…. Decision made. A few seconds later, I see a horrific scene strewn in front of me. The road is completely blocked. I have no way to get by to go to the station and no way I would have anyway after the horror I see before me.
A red car completely unrecognizable as to the make or model on its top , debris strewn as far as I can see. I can hear sirens in the distance from the other side of the carnage. I pull off to the side off the road, out of the way for any incoming units. I jump out of my truck and that’s when I hear the screams. After 14 years I can still hear them clearly.
You can say the screams were the tires letting out air, or the sirens coming from all directios, or screams of the few bystanders but in my mind and in my memory it was 2 people in the back of that car. I could just make out part of the rear driver’s side window. the car was laying with the driver’s side facing me. It was crushed and mangled but you could see the back window and all I could hear were the distant sirens and that screaming.
Time stood still , as it always does in these situations, I approached the scene on foot. No tools, or anything, pulling on my gloves as I walk towards the screaming I get about 10 feet from the car and I can clearly make out screams for help. Just as I am about to round the car to see if I can gain access from the passenger side the entire care erupts in a massive ball of flame. I am pushed back by the heat, my jacket is open, my helmet’s face shield is still up. I can’t do anything, completely helpless. I try to get closer, the front passenger door or, what’s left of it is open. I try to see if I can pull anyone free, the roar of the flames is drowning out any other sounds and my focus is on getting to the people inside, but I can’t.
I turn around as one of our engines arrived, I run to it, grab a hose line and race towards the car. I grab a real “newbie” and tell him to help me get on the hose. We get the line stretched out and I hear our other engine coming from that same direction, beyond the scene……… or what I THOUGHT was the scene. We signal to the engineer for water and start to attack the fire. We aren’t on air packs, my jacket still undone, helmet shield still up. I’m not properly protected in any way shape or form.
We’ve been on lots of calls but not like this one. The Chief must have called for support as a neighboring department’s engine pulls up from the direction that I came along with a command car. The Chief (a really big deal to me at the time) of that neighboring department walks past us and yells at us to button up our gear and get the fire under control. We do get the flames knocked down rather quickly, I leave the rookie with the hose to “cover me” and I get to the car. I can see that there’s not a thing we can do for the passengers in back. I knew that when the ball of flames shot 30 feet in the air and the screaming stopped, but I had to look. I shouldn’t have, I wish I hadn’t , but it was my job.
What I see is burned into my brain forever. I see one teenage boy huddled on the roof of the car in a fetal position behind the passenger seat. He is badly burnt and still smoldering. I look past him and see the shape of another person by the window where I first pulled up but crumpled in an extremely unnatural way, his face is towards me but not a chance of life. His eyes were open and solid black, like the eyes of a Hollywood horror creature.
The county paramedics arrived next and maneuver their way around the scene to where I am. One of them hops out and looks in and I’ll never forget his words: “Those two have injuries incompatible with life, where are the other patients?”
huh? Other patients? What?
This was a HUGE eye opener for me, I’d had tunnel vision. I didn’t have very good situational awareness, oh I’d taken some classes on it in the military and had heard the phrase but I didn’t fully comprehend it until that moment. This was a multi-car incident!
There was way more going on than just “my” side of the scene. the entire incident stretched out 300 yards or more down the road. We finished with making sure our fire was extinguished and rushed to command to find out what we needed to do next. That’s when I saw the other car. If you can even call it that. It used to be an SUV a Dodge Durango I think. It was on it’s roof, the entire rear axle – tires and all one to who knows where. One of the front tires went through a fence and INTO a house. There’s gas leaking, the two occupants trapped in their seatbelts upside down. All we can smell is gas everywhere and the power is still on in the vehicle.
I see one firefighter in the back of the vehicle talking to the people and helping them get loose from the seatbelts. We get one out but have to use the jaws of life on the other. There’s a hose line standing by in case that gas smell turns into more than just a smell. We get the passenger out but they aren’t in very good shape. Backboard, c-collar and off to the Medic unit. I go to our aid car to help out there. Inside is a teenager with serious facial and other injuries, obviously in shock and inebriated. He is semi coherent and not feeling much pain. He is asking about the passengers in the car. I ask him how many were with him as the passenger seat and driver’s seat were empty. He said 2 or 3. Wll crap man, how many?!? He can’t remember. I scramble to gather as many free people that I can, they have the other driver out at this point so there are a few people standing about waiting for orders. We get started searching all along the sides of the road, in the bushes and blackberries (at that time in the department we didn’t have a thermal imaging camera AKA TIC) , we call for a chopper with infrared sensors to search the area for warmth of a body, someone may have been ejected from the car.
The 2nd Medic unit arrives and takes the teenager off to Harborview. We get a 3rd Medic unit to transport the driver of the other car. The 1st Medic is already on its way with the passenger from the SUV to the landing zone for an airlift.
The living patients are being transported, the vehicles are now stable. Now we need to work with the police and Medical Examiner to get the investigation started. What seems like just a few minutes was nearly an hour to get all the patients out of the wreckage an into transport.
There were several hours of clean up and assistance to provide in the 34° night (without socks!) . Before the Chief of the neighboring department leaves he stops by me and barks out – “Cunningham Give me your helmet”. I give him a strange look but I do it anyway. He’s not my chief but he’s still A chief and you do what they say. He takes my helmet and says I’ve seen you on lots of calls and I watched you tonight, you did good, you need to be sure to always have your gear on right but you did real good. He takes the T’s off of my helmet on the spot. (I would later talk to my own Chief who confirmed they talked and it was way past time for them to come off) ..but I earned my way into the brotherhood that night through fire and blood.
At about 5 AM we are let go to rest, the investigation is still underway. I go home and shower, still really in a state of shock, frozen ( especially my feet!) and exhausted. I tumble into bed. What seems like 5 minutes later my pager goes off again for the same location.
Same routine – jump up and into gear, keys, scanner etc… this time it’s a manpower call. They need people to help with more clean up. I get to the same place, park in the same spot and see the same scene, only this time it’s in the daylight. We can see the horrific scene clearly now. All that remains are a few policemen, the coroner, and our Rescue Truck. The road is completely closed for a mile in either direction. The Chief says we need to use the jaws to get the bodies out of the back of the car so Medical Examiner ca take them for autopsies and then the cops can take the cars and we can clean up the road.
Very few people showed up to help. That happens sometimes, you never know with volunteers how many will show for any given call. I think there were about 4 of us. It was a female Senior Firefighter/EMT and myself that grabbed the jaws (actually a Hurst tool). There was a tow truck there to flip the car upright so we could cut the roof off to get access to the entrapped people in the back. Carefully, the tow truck got the car on its side, and then lowered to the ground. We cut the columns off and peeled back the roof of the car. I was able to get inside to help get them out. By now it had been many hours after their deaths, rigor mortis had set in.
The first body was just as I remembered it, only instead of on the roof it was now on the floor and seat. The second was now nearly completely crammed underneath the driver’s seat. We had to cut the driver’s seat out and were able to remove his body. Transferring it to the ME’s gurney was a challenge due to the rigor mortis and it was a gruesome sight. The same process with the second body, just as gruesome. But, as professionals we maintain our composure, we have to help the ME get them into their van as the positions the bodies are locked in isn’t conducive to easy loading.
The Coroner’s truck drives off, the police wrap up the scene. The tow truck takes away the last of the destroyed cars and we are left in the quiet. We clean up the road and get it re-opened.
Happy fucking New year…. We spend the next hour or two cleaning up the road and are finally let go. As I am leaving, I am numbed by it all, truly in shock of what I’ve just witnessed and done. The gravity of the situation hits me as I climb in my truck. I drive back to the station to help put the rigs away and get them back in service and ready for the next call, then I head home. As I’m heading home a bald eagle flies down in front of my truck and kind of guides me through what used to be the “scene” and on down the road towards my turn off I thank the Eagle for guiding me home, I don’t remember much after that….I turned off, the Eagle continued on his way……I have no recollection of the rest of that day…. I just knew I had to work at my day job tomorrow.
I will get to the ripples and the point of this post in a bit, but here is the report on this incident from a newspaper ( I changed it a bit to omit the names). It tells what happened, but that’s it. Not the real tragedy behind the story…. Not the ripples……
The Seattle Times — “Both drivers in a New Year’s Eve accident that left two young men dead have been charged with vehicular homicide.
Two charges were filed against a 16-year-old who King County prosecutors say had been drinking and driving his Firebird at least 90 mph on the Kent-Kangley Road in Ravensdale when the accident occurred just after midnight Jan. 1.
Prosecutors also filed a single count of vehicular assault against the driver of the other car, …who they allege had a blood-alcohol level more than twice the legal limit at the time of the accident.
Both passengers in the teen’s car, …were killed. The Passenger in the other car was severely injured
Occupants of both cars had just left parties and were headed in opposite directions when [X] misjudged the oncoming driver’s speed and attempted to turn left onto 320th Avenue Southeast in front of the car driven by the teen, prosecutors said.”
That may help you to imagine what I saw when I was the 1st to show up on the scene. I only saw the firebird that had hit the SUV at 90+ MPH, flipped multiple times and then came to rest on its roof and a short time later burst into flames in front of my eyes. The other car was literally hundreds of yards down the road.
That short “blurb” in the newspaper doesn’t begin to tell you about the effect of this horrific incident that is repeated daily.
Every. Single. Fucking.Day.
People KILL people,kids, teens, adults, PEOPLE KILL PEOPLE because they are drunk and get behind the wheel. Ignorant of the potential consequences.
BULLSHIT. They are not ignorant of what could happen. Don’t blame the booze. If you drink and drive, it’s your fault, your poor judgment. Even if you have the disease of alcoholism you are still at fault NOT your disease!!! YOU got behind the wheel not the bottle!!
I’m betting that many of you reading this have been over the limit and driven I know I did when I was young and either didn’t know better or didn’t care. I was a selfish teenager once too with “issues” wrapped up in the world being just about me, not taking any responsibility for my own actions. So I’m not claiming to be better than anyone. I’m not saying I am holier than thou. I want to share with you all the true cost of the choices you make when you get behind the wheel of a vehicle drunk and cause an accident. Oh it will happen to someone else, not to me.
I’m here to tell you that YOUR choice to get behind the wheel drunk can affect and send ripples of damage , irreparable damage into the world. Here’s how I see this particular crash affected, and continues to send ripples into the world…
The Deaths of 2 young men aged 17 and 21 – those ripples we will never know… they could have been the creators of the cure for cancer, Or the next Einstein or any number of things. negative ripples, empty holes black dark holes like those eyes that I see looking through me from the back seat of that car. No one will ever know what could have been with these two young men.
The families and friends of those two young men. They are forever hurt beyond imagination of the death of their children and friends. They are feeling the loss. Maybe they go out and try to share the don’t drink and drive story, or maybe some of them go into terrible depressions, maybe , maybe, maybe… who knows but the ripples are still going for all of those people to this day…..
What about the people at the parties they were at that let them leave drunk? They have ripples…. They are affected too…
The survivors (both Drunk Drivers) I can’t imagine what their lives turned into after this event. What about the passenger of the SUV that survived, what were the injuries, did they heal? What kind of ripples do they have? Have they turned their lives around, or ended them even? What about their children? Their friends and family? They were affected by the ripples…. Maybe they still are
….lives forever changed….
The witnesses , the bystanders that came out of their homes and saw the carnage, whoever it was that called 911 to get us there… what about them? They were witness to a horrible scene that most of them probably have never witnessed that close before. What effect did it have on their lives? Ripples…..
And then us… the first responders…. We are “used” to seeing catastrophe and tragedy, but you never truly get used to it..… you get hardened to things and you build coping mechanisms and ways to keep your composure but you still see , you still feel, you still empathize, you still experience the things you see and sometimes you’re better for it, for making a difference for those people you help. Sometimes you’re not better for it. Sometimes you’re traumatized by it. Especially in those instances where you can do nothing. It happens and you’re aware of it, it happens to every first responder. You ask yourself, you over analyze the situations and what if them to no end. You usually come to terms with the fact that it was not your fault, it was out of your hands, you tried, you did your best and most of the time you get over it…but not always…
All of these ripples from are from people making a single terrible decision….a decision to drink and drive or let someone you care about drink and drive.
But there are times where you don’t get over it. You’ve all heard of PTSD, it’s not just for soldiers. It never has been really but we as a society miss that. There are so many policemen, firemen, paramedics that deal with it in their daily lives,even just business people and joe and joetta public can have it from seeing or being involved in a traumatic event. Don’t you DARE doubt PTSD for a second. It destroys lives but it IS treatable. You have to get help for it. No one, NO ONE, I don’t care who you are, you cannot get through it alone.
If you or someone you know has, or you suspect they have PTSD get help. Talk to someone. Sometimes that’s all it takes – talking it out, therapy can work. Sometimes it’s so deeply rooted that you need medication. That’s OK!!! IT IS OK to ask for help. It doesn’t make you weak, quite the opposite – it makes you stronger.
PTSD can build up too. It doesn’t have to be from a single event. We are HUMAN we can all only take so much. There are so many first responders out there that suffer in silence, with some not even realizing they have PTSD. If you happen to be a first responder reading this, take a look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself if you are OK , really OK. If you aren’t , talk to someone. Even if it’s me- you can talk to me. I’m not a licensed professional therapist but I am a decent listener. Contact me and I’ll listen, and offer advice, or be a shoulder to cry on. That’s another thing – any of you so called Macho Men, Tough guys, etc. if there’s anyone left that says real men don’t cry – WAKE THE FUCK UP… yes we do. I used to cry a lot, then after that New Year’s Accident I cried every day, every single day for months on end. I did it in private, I didn’t talk about it, I didn’t tell anyone, I didn’t get help. I just tried to deal with it, it became who I was. I still did my regular job, though in hindsight probably not as good as I could have. I still was the best EMT and Firefighter that I could be, I got promotions to Lt, then Captain and a candidate for Chief before I had to medically retire, But I probably could have been better.
It took me many years before I got help. What did I do to my family during that time? Maybe I wasn’t the best parent or husband, I’m so sorry for that.
DON’T BE THAT PERSON! The sooner you recognize the symptoms, the sooner you get help, the better off you are and those who care about you are!!!!!
Sorry but that’s an important part of this “story” . I had been suffering from PTSD unknowingly for years prior to that night but that particular crash, where I felt so helpless and was the only person there for minutes, pushed me over the edge. That was the ripple for me…. it tore my life apart…. I couldn’t sleep, I cried , I had flashbacks, and saw the scene replayed over and over and over…. I still do… 10 or 15 years later….. I still hear the screams, I still see those cold, black, dead eye staring at me in my dreams.
Back to 2003, January 2nd. January 1st was just a blur, I was in shock I’m sure. Since it was a holiday I’m know that we took the horses out for a ride, did the chores, had dinner, read to the kids, put them to bed and went to bed ourselves but I don’t remember. I remember getting up on the 2nd and driving into work, crying as I listened to music. I composed myself for the work day, I worked and when it was time, I went home. On my way home I remember crying more. It was raining that day but it was just scattered showers. Isaw a double rainbow and told myself that it was going to be ok. That helped a little. It didn’t stop the crying or the other issues of PTSD but it helped me to survive for years, it didn’t save my marriage but I survived.
Who else from that night suffered? Other firefighters? Probably. I know at least one that left the department after that. Somewhere, every day these things happen. Because of one selfish decision. You can ruin lives and send ripples of evil into the world… DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE!!!
Like I said earlier though, I’m not any better than anyone else. If you happen to be reading this and have caused an accident or done something in your life to send out those negative ripples, please don’t despair. You CAN CHANGE, you CAN make a difference, a POSITIVE difference in the world still! You are also a victim, possibly of PTSD yourself, you may be a victim of your choice and yes it was your fault but you can make amends and change lives positively. Every action we make has ripples. Make a change, make a resolution to yourself to make a positive difference and send out those ripples into the world…. Forgive yourself, get help, make a difference.
This story is just one of the many ripples sent out on 1/1/03 in a little rural community that changed the world for so many people. It is now rippling out to you, the one reading this. You may not realize it but you just got rippled. Share that ripple, keep it going, don’t let it find the shore and fizzle out. Keep the positive ripple , the message of “don’t drink and drive” should keep rippling until it is no longer needed.
Don’t let anyone you know or love drink or drive. Save lives, make positive ripples. Imagine the world rippling with positivity. You can be that change in every way , every day. Resolve to send positive ripples.
I spent 14 years in the fire service. I went from trainee, to probie, to lieutenant to captain. I went on thousands of calls, some worse than this one, most better than this one. I wanted to share this particular story with you to hopefully make a difference for someone. Even if that someone is me. Maybe this is one of my final acts of letting go after all these years.
About every other year on New Year’s Eve, I go to the roadside memorial set up for the two young men whose lives were lost that night and I place flowers there. I say how sorry I am that I couldn’t help them. I’ve begged for forgiveness for myself over the years, I’ve sang and I’ve wept at that site. I’ve parked where I did that night and relived the moments over and over. Tonight ( 2013) was the last time I did that. One final act of a single small part of that huge incident to put a stop to the ripples of that event on my life. I’ve always gone alone, but that night I took my wife with me , I wish I could take my boys as well , they don’t know this story fully. They just know that dad is a freakazoid about drinking and driving and kids dying. Maybe they will read this someday and understand why I always “nag” and make them promise me never to do it, or let anyone they are with do it. To be leaders not followers. My wife and I went out to the site, placed flowers on the memorial, she said a prayer, I apologized one last time and I forgave myself and let go. I resolved to do all that I can to make a positive difference in the world. I still try to do that every day of my life in some way.
For more information on PTSD: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001923/
You don’t need any more info on Drunk Driving…. You see it everywhere… just don’t do it…. If you do need more info just look around I’m sure you will find it…
Sorry for the “downer” post – PLEASE Don’t look at it as a downer, don’t be sad. Make a change, make a difference, smile and be kind.. I truly do wish each and every one of you a wonderful safe and happy New year, I hope all of your dreams come true and that 2017 is a fabulous year for you all.
As always my friends: