"I Am Not Going To Make It!" Part 1

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Once again in this column, we read a story of members being struck while operating on a highway. In this case, we have the very personal accounts of a medic who is a part of the Fort Worth, TX, 911 response system and who almost lost her life and a firefighter who witnessed the incident! Not only did she almost lose her life, but so did her partner and the firefighters she works with everyday. Of the many observations I made in working with the two readers in preparing this column was the positive relations that the firefighters and the medics in Fort Worth have…and how it provided a solid foundation for what happened after this incident – both short and long term.

This month’s account, to be honest, gave me goose bumps. I read a lot of these and this one hit close to home – because, again – this could be me or you!

Our sincere appreciation goes out to Fort Worth MedStar Medic Selena Schmidt and Fort Worth Firefighter Glenn R. Scarbrough Jr. for their outstanding cooperation in the preparing of this month’s column. We wish Medic Selena Schmidt and Firefighter Robert Woodle a continued rapid and peaceful recovery, as we do to all those affected directly or indirectly.

The writers wish to express their appreciation to: MedStar Medic Michael Hankins and Captain Donald Dean and Firefighters Jeremy Torres and Robert Woodle of Fort Worth, TX, Fire Department Engine 32, who were struck on the scene; Fort Worth Quint 23; MedStar medics and communications; Fort Worth Fire Department communications; and the officers and members of the Fort Worth Fire Department, Fort Worth Police Department and Fort Worth MedStar EMS for their incredible support and heroic efforts. Our thanks also go out to Brian Alphin for his photos.

As any of our submitters know, it isn’t easy to share these stories. But the fact that so many of you do clearly shows a type of courage that is absolutely making a difference in saving the lives of brothers and sisters on the job.

This first account is provided by our reader and the most critically injured member at this incident, Medic Selena D. Schmidt of MedStar EMS in Fort Worth:

We arrived in the parking lot of MedStar and unloaded our personal belongings. It was a beautiful morning, crisp and cool, and the sun was shining. Tracy and I looked for our partners while we went to the supply counter to check out our ambulance equipment, drugs and anything else we needed. Tracy and I said goodbye for the day and proceeded with our partners to our ambulances. We usually spend 15 to 20 minutes going through the stock of our supplies to make sure we have everything we need for our 16-hour shift.

MedStar is a third city service and we provide emergency medical service for the entire city of Fort Worth and 13 neighboring cities. In Fort Worth and the other cities, the fire departments respond to Priority 1 and Priority 2 calls, but they do not have rescue units or ambulances for transport; that’s MedStar. We see it all! Central station is our “only” station. Unlike the firefighters, who stay at the station until a call is toned out, we leave central station at the beginning of our shift and we are out for the entire 16-hour shift. Once we leave central station, we are assigned a post. A post is a designated location in the city where we sit and wait for a call to come in. Usually, we sit still for only minutes. There are approximately 40 posting locations throughout the city and we rotate from one side of the city to the other, based on where the calls are coming in and who is closest. Our posting locations are within individual fire districts and stations. Each unit averages 14 calls in a 16-hour shift and we usually work an hour or two past our shift when the system is busy.

That morning, we had a third rider with us on the ambulance, a MedStar employee whose partner was not at work. My partner, Michael, is a paramedic and a volunteer firefighter for the River Oaks Fire Department, one of the cities MedStar serves. Michael and I called “available” on the radio and immediately caught a call. There were forecasts of a thunderstorm rolling in sometime after 5 P.M. Our shift is from 7 A.M. to 11 P.M. I don’t remember any of our calls that day and I don’t remember eating anything – I know I did, I just don’t remember.

At approximately 6 P.M., we received a call from the communications center asking us to go to Post 40 to meet another ambulance, Unit 31, to off-load our third rider so that he and the other crew could go home. We arrived there and I hopped out to give Unit 31’s medic, Jimmy, a hug. He was my Wednesday partner. I switched Wednesdays with Jimmy’s regular partner so she could go to EMT-Intermediate school.

Unit 31 had just gotten off duty when we went to “level zero” – it was now about 6:45. “Level zero” is when all of the ambulances that are in service are on other calls and there are 911 calls holding. Yikes! This happens, on average, once or twice a day, if not more. Minutes later, we heard “MedStar 55, copy call.” We were dispatched to a Priority 2 motor vehicle collision on southbound Interstate 820 at Chapin Road. At the time of the dispatch, a thunderstorm cell was moving through the city – and it was a monster. It was pouring rain so hard that we had the wipers on high and still we could barely see.

We were traveling “lights and sirens” northbound on I-820, planning to make a U-turn to access the southbound lanes. The 911 call had come in by cell phone and there was some confusion as to the exact location of the accident.

It was still pouring rain when we saw a single car in the median of I-820, so there was no need for a U-turn, since we could access it from either side. A red two-door Honda Civic had slammed into a light pole in the median, impacting the driver’s side.

We arrived first on scene at approximately 6:55. A bystander had just stopped to see whether he could assist. Our patient was a young female who was still restrained in the vehicle. She was awake and alert, but shaken up and in pain. She was going to have to be extricated out of the passenger side. My partner, Michael, was at the vehicle speaking to her. The bystander offered to help, so he and I went to the ambulance to get the stretcher, backboard and other equipment. The vehicle had come to rest in the ditch of the median. It was pouring rain and water was up to my knees when we crossed the ditch with the stretcher.

Michael entered the back seat behind the patient and I placed the backboard on the passenger seat. The bystander helped me lower the stretcher. I positioned it just outside the passenger-side door with the door open all the way so that when the patient was loaded onto the backboard, the stretcher would be ready for loading. I then asked the bystander to wait in his vehicle for safety and I climbed in the car to help prepare the patient for extrication.

I am 33 years young, 4-foot-11, and weigh 125 pounds, but with lots of muscle, and I can fit into small, awkward spaces. I sat on the middle console area next to the dash, facing out of the passenger-side door. It was a good position for me to have access to the patient and aid in her safe extrication since we will have to take all cervical spine precautions.

As soon as I sat down, I noticed that Engine 32 was just arriving; we had been on scene only for maybe five minutes. Typically, two engines respond to interstate accidents, one close to the scene and the other as a blocker. The second engine, Quint 23, was still about 45 seconds to a minute away. Michael, myself and three firefighters were explaining to the patient what we were about to do.

At this point, we had slid the backboard under the patient’s pelvis and began to move her over in increments. We were about to make the final move and Michael, at the patient’s head, began to count to three. 1…2…I look up and sheer horror is all I saw. It was so surreal that I wasn’t sure if it was actually happening. In slow motion, but so fast I couldn’t react, speak or move, I saw a car sliding as if it were on ice directly toward us. It actually slid around the fire engine. I saw one firefighter’s face and then all I saw was bunker gear in the air. The out-of-control vehicle hit three firefighters from behind while they were standing outside the vehicle, then hit the stretcher that was sitting outside the first vehicle.

The stretcher flew into the car and hit me in the abdomen at approximately 50-60 mph. It was “lights out” for me at that point. On impact, our original patient was ejected from her car and off of the backboard, since we never had a chance to make the final move and strap her to the backboard. The patient landed on top of one of the firefighters. Michael, who was in the back seat, did a somersault and landed head-first on the driver’s-side floorboard. I landed head-first on the floorboard on the passenger side.

I remember the impact very vividly. It was a clear vision with a big blur behind it, like time-lapse photography. I remember only bits and pieces of the scene after the impact, most likely because I was in and out of consciousness. I remember at one point me regaining consciousness and feeling the unbearable urge to remove my pants. They were getting tighter and tighter by the second, so I unfastened them. My abdomen was distended and I felt like it was on fire.

I could predict my injuries. Obviously, by me unfastening my pants, it added fuel to the fire and made the internal bleeding worse and I lost consciousness again. At another point, I got up and was desperately searching for Michael. I was holding my stomach while wandering aimlessly around the scene as if my mind was gone. I saw firefighters down, just lying there. I couldn’t even do anything because my pain was excruciating and I was so dizzy that I couldn’t see. I knew my blood pressure was dropping and I felt doom, like this was the end of everything I had ever known.

I couldn’t hear anything; it was as if I was on top of the scene looking down. I don’t remember it, but I have been told that I was saying, “I am not going to make it, please call my husband.” I found my partner at the ambulance. He was sitting on the sideboard with the door open, leaning into the floorboard of the ambulance and calling for help on the radio. I fell to the ground next to him and he looked hurt, but he was fighting it. You could see the terror on his face. I have been told that at one time Michael was on the radio, and the entire fleet heard over the airwaves a blood-curdling scream. That was me. I can’t even begin to describe the pain and the fear, but I am sure that’s where the scream came from.

In my entire life, I had never had a fracture, sprain or laceration and this day, everything hurt, emotionally and physically. I was so scared that the firefighters were dead. I didn’t know how bad my partner was hurt and I felt so helpless. I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like for the crew of the second engine, which was less than a minute away when this happened. They said that as soon as they went under the overpass, just seconds before they arrived on scene, the rain stopped completely. I am sure it was terror for them rolling up on scene, trying to get a grip on what they were seeing and knowing that they had to face their worst fears and take action.

I think at that point adrenaline takes over and you don’t think, you just do what has to be done. I remember one un-involved firefighter coming over to me and I felt like he was the only one left on earth. I will never forget his face. I don’t remember what he said to me, but he had to leave me to check on the others. I remember thinking how we were at “level zero” when the call came in and that could mean that someone might not be able to reach us for a while. I was really scared then. I remember feeling like someone else was going to lose control in the rain and hit the crews that were helping us. I remember at one point hearing the roar of the helicopter, CareFlite. I could feel the wind against my face. CareFlite took our original patient first, due to the mechanism of injury. Then, another CareFlite helicopter landed for one of the firefighters who had been hit directly.

Not remembering it, I was secured to a backboard and loaded into the ambulance. Ironically, they grabbed the closest available stretcher and loaded me on it. Only when they went to work the stretcher, they realized that I was on the very stretcher that hit me in the abdomen. Bent and crumpled metal. The only thing I remember is the medic taking care of me, Kevin, saying “her pressure is dropping, let’s go now, there is no time to wait on another bird.” He was incredible. He will always be a hero to me.

Our original patient and the three firefighters were taken to Harris Methodist Hospital. Michael and I were taken to John Peter Smith Hospital, both trauma facilities for the city. My friend Tracy had been dispatched on a call when our emergency was radioed into dispatch over Channel 1. Channel 1 then became our multi-casualty incident (MCI) channel and the system was switched to Channel 2. Tracy had taken her patient to John Peter Smith Hospital at about the same time I arrived there. When Tracy had transferred care of her patient to the emergency room staff, she stood at my head, trying to comfort me. It was frustrating not being able to look over at Michael, who was in the room beside me with only a curtain separating us. I could talk to him and it was so nice to hear his voice. I still didn’t know how badly he was injured, but I was terrified for him.

My husband, Glen, and his parents were over an hour away and by the time they got there, I was pretty much out of it. My husband said that once he arrived in the ER, a fire chief came up to him and said a few words. There were so many people there – fire chiefs, lieutenants, police, MedStar employees, supervisors, etc. He said it looked like a war zone. There was even a traumatic CPR being performed right next to us. It was like all hell had broken loose at once.

Everyone except me was treated and released that night. I know they were hurt badly, but I am thankful they were OK enough to not have to stay in the hospital. Emotionally, I am sure it was detrimental for all of them. I feel so close to them in my own way; we have shared an experience that has changed our lives and careers forever.

I sustained life-threatening internal injuries and was in ICU for a few days following surgery. The doctors had to do an exploratory laparotomy. I have an incision from xiphoid to pubis symphysis. I was in the hospital for seven days. My injuries included a perforated small intestine, a punctured colon, a punctured stomach, a collapsed lung, broken ribs, fractures of T-12, L-3 and L-4 in my back, and many bruises all over – yet strangely enough, no cuts and no exterior bleeding. I had a couple of close calls of survival with having to have a second chest tube with my collapsed lung and fighting a bad infection from my stomach contents spilling out into my body. Luckily, I overcame them, and the chest tube was removed on Sunday, April 17, and I went home that night.

My husband has been incredible. He has hung in there and been strong for me and the kids. My boys Trevin, 15, and Justin, 13, were in shock. They just didn’t know the extent of what had happened. It wasn’t until the next day that they were able to come see me. One of the ICU nurses pulled them aside and explained to them everything that was going on, what had happened to their mother and what every tube was in for. They were able to deal with everything and overcome their fears of what was happening.

I will be out of work for a while. I do plan on returning to EMS and to MedStar after I heal, rehabilitate, get back in shape and receive some counseling from the incident. The doctors are predicting anywhere from two to six months. They said that I should be thankful for being in such good shape at the time of the accident. They say that will contribute to my recovery in the long run. It is still terrifying traveling in a car, so I am taking that slowly but that too will pass with time.

My partner at work is taking this very hard too and together we are dealing with the emotional aspect in our own way. He has been physically released back to work, but has a long way to go to heal from it all. I don’t enjoy thunderstorms the way I used to. My company has been so great to me through all of this and all of the support from my co-workers was incredible. I must have had 30 employees visit me every day in the hospital, including my medical director for MedStar, Dr. Griswell, and the management personnel.

The investigation is complete and it was determined that our original patient had been traveling too fast for road conditions and hydroplaned, lost control and slammed into the median light pole. The second vehicle was also traveling too fast for road conditions, did not yield appropriately to the emergency scene, hydroplaned in almost the exact spot, lost control and slid into the scene, hitting us. I later found out that a third vehicle hydroplaned just after the second vehicle, but luckily he turned the wheel a different way and slid into the shoulder away from us and rolled over. It could have been a catastrophe had he hit us too. Thank goodness everyone survived.

My message to EMS/fire personnel: I have learned first-hand just how risky our jobs are and anything we can do to prevent these things from happening is crucial. In my case, the only thing we could have done would have been to wait for the second engine to provide more blocking, which isn’t always realistic. Even then, we would not have been 100% protected from the dangers of speeding drivers in the rain. What are we to do when those resources simply are not available in such a busy system in a busy city? This incident shows that until the public is properly educated on the dangers we face and legislators provide better resources for protection on interstates and other roads, EMS and fire personnel will always be working under dangerous, life-threatening conditions.

This account, providing a different perspective, is submitted by our reader, Firefighter Glenn R. Scarbrough Jr. of the Fort Worth Fire Department, Station 32-B, who was not injured, but witnessed the incident:

At approximately 6:53 P.M., Engine 32 was dispatched along with Quint 23 to a motor vehicle accident on West Loop 820 near Chapin Road in Fort Worth. The alarm office advised that a red vehicle had hit a light pole in the center median.

Engine 32 was manned with a crew of four: Captain Donald Dean; Firefighter Jeremy Torres, left-side firefighter; Firefighter Robert Woodle, right-side firefighter; and me, as acting engineer.

Just prior to the incident, severe storms had entered Tarrant County, bringing heavy rains to the area. At the time of the dispatch, the heavy rains were stopping and light rain was coming down. Due to the heavy rain, the roadways had standing water on them, with water pooling near the left side of the left traffic lane where the left traffic lane and the improved emergency shoulder meet.

Prior to Engine 32 leaving the station, Captain Dean and Firefighter Torres put on their bunker pants with boots and bunker coat. Firefighter Woodle chose to wear his uniform shorts with a recently issued winter coat. I was wearing the department-issued station uniform.

Engine 32 responded to the incident with all emergency lights and siren activated. As we approached the scene, traveling south on West Loop 820 in the left lane, I observed water pooling on the left side of the left lane where the improved emergency shoulder and the left traffic lane meet. I also saw a MedStar ambulance already on the scene with a female MedStar medic in the passenger seat of a red car and a male MedStar medic walking from the ambulance to the red car with a backboard in his hands. The ambulance was positioned facing north on the improved emergency shoulder of northbound west loop 820.

The captain advised the alarm office that Engine 32 was on scene as I positioned the apparatus on the improved emergency shoulder as close to the median as I could without leaving the asphalt road surface. The captain and the two firefighters exited the apparatus as I was adjusting the amber directional lights to signal a left-to-right motion.

As I was exiting the apparatus, I stepped down into the grassy median and into approximately three inches of water, causing my socks and feet to get wet. I walked over to the red car and observed six medically trained personnel assisting one patient. I asked the captain if I could return to the engine and put on my bunker gear. He replied, “Sure, go ahead, we’ve got this.”

I returned to the engine, where I removed my bunker gear from the left-side engineer’s compartment. I started to don my bunker gear at that location, but decided to move to the asphalt roadway in front of the engine because there was less standing water there. I picked up my gear and walked to the front of the engine, near the front left headlight. As I was putting on my bunker pants, I heard what sounded to me like a vehicle sliding or hydroplaning on the wet roadway. I could not tell which direction it was coming from, but I knew it getting closer. I turned toward the red car and yelled “Car!”

As I was yelling “Car!”, I saw a black car slide sideways through the median and collide with the red car, pinning the captain, two firefighters and the two MedStar medics between the two vehicles. The black car struck the red car with such force that the two vehicles, along with three firefighters and two medics, traveled about 22 feet before coming to rest. I saw the captain being thrown clear of the accident and onto the asphalt roadway to a location in front of the engine. After the vehicle came to rest, I observed Firefighter Torres turn, take two steps and fall to the ground. At that time, I did not see Firefighter Woodle or the two medics.

I immediately ran around to the driver’s side of the engine and climbed in to radio for assistance. As I keyed up the radio to speak, I saw Captain Dean rolling around on the asphalt, as a person would do if in intense pain. I saw Firefighter Torres lying motionless on the ground. I keyed up the radio and stated, “Engine 32 to Alarm, Engine 32 to Alarm, 10-33 traffic, 10-33 traffic.” I then remembered that I was not a police officer anymore and that the Fort Worth Fire Department does not recognize 10 codes. I again keyed up the radio and stated, “Engine 32 to Alarm, Engine 32 to Alarm, Mayday, Mayday.” Alarm answered and I advised them that a vehicle had come through the accident scene and that we had three down firefighters and that I needed help.

As I exited the engine, a civilian asked if he could help. Believing that I just witnessed my crew being killed by an unknown motorist and still falling back on my police training, I handed him my disposable camera out of my bunker pants and asked him to start taking pictures of the accident scene. I asked him to give the camera back to me and to no one else, and he stated, “Yes, sir.” Some of the pictures you are seeing were taken by that civilian, Brian Alphin.

I then retrieved the red EMS bag from Engine 32 and went to Captain Dean’s location for patient assessment and triage. He told me that he was hurt, but OK, and asked me to check to see if the others were alive. I then went to Firefighter Torres, who was lying motionless with his eyes closed. I asked Jeremy if he could hear me and he responded yes, stating that both his legs were in a lot of pain. Observing that he was alive and talking, I then went to look for Firefighter Woodle. I found Robert lying on his back in the median between the red and black cars. I approached him and observed him to be in a lot of pain. I asked him where he hurt and he stated that his hips, back and legs were in severe pain.

As I was performing patient assessment and triage on Robert, Quint 23 arrived on scene and I advised Captain Randy Parker that we needed CareFlite and that Firefighter Woodle needed to be on the first helicopter, as he was the most critically injured due to the initial observations. I then took Robert’s vitals and wrote them on his right inside forearm with a black pen. During patient assessment, I observed that Robert’s black uniform shorts had been torn almost completely from his body. I also observed that Robert had bruising to his legs and a large bruise on his hip with minor bleeding. CareFlite arrived and Robert was loaded into the helicopter. I then assisted with patient care on the female who was in the red car, but who was ejected from her vehicle when the black car struck her car.

My closing statement: I work for one of the most qualified and highly trained fire departments in the world. Our mission statement, “To serve and protect our community through education, prevention, preparedness and response,” is the goal of every firefighter.

We train and practice our skills so we can keep the citizens of our community and fellow firefighters and medics safe. But we can only do so much to protect ourselves and the community we serve at motor vehicle accident scenes. We need the community to help keep us (the firefighters and EMS personnel) safe by driving responsibly and at a safe speed for current road conditions.

Next: Chief Goldfeder’s observations and communications with the writers and others regarding this incident.

Related:

William Goldfeder will present “Firefighter Close Calls: Injury & Death Prevention” and “A Family Affair” at Firehouse Expo 2005, July 26-31 in Baltimore.


William Goldfeder, EFO, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 32-year veteran of the fire service. He is a deputy chief with the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, an ISO Class 2 and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has been a chief officer since 1982, has served on numerous IAFC and NFPA committees, and is a past commissioner with the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. He is a graduate of the Executive Fire Officer Program at the National Fire Academy and is an active writer, speaker and instructor on fire service operational issues. Goldfeder and Gordon Graham host the free and noncommercial firefighter safety and survival website www.FirefighterCloseCalls.com. Goldfeder may be contacted at BillyG@FirefighterCloseCalls.com.

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