Tampa Tribune

Burned In Memory
By KEITH MORELLICarlos Quintela kmorelli@tampatrib.com
Published: Jun 9, 2005

EDITOR'S NOTE: On Dec. 10, Robert O'Mara, deeply troubled over the breakup of his marriage, lay in wait for his ex-wife, Patricia Parra-Perez, to come home from work. On a quiet neighborhood street in front of her house, he shot and killed his two children and himself, and critically wounded Parra-Perez. The incident made national headlines and focused attention on the issue of domestic violence. This is the story as told through three rescuers who were first on the scene.

LUTZ Frank Centofante joined the fire service to fight fires. He isn't much for tending to old people complaining of chest pains or teens injured in car wrecks. For him, flames draw the adrenaline.

"Just seeing a fire from three or four miles out, to see the column," he said. "Well, that's what I like about it."

For Centofante, now a captain after 26 years with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, his career path was never in doubt. His father was a firefighter with the city of Tampa and made no bones about urging his sons to be firefighters. Two took his advice.

When he was 18 and fresh out of Leto High School, Centofante volunteered at the firehouse. Two years later, after graduating from the fire academy, he was hired.

He started at a time when firefighters only fought fires. Medical calls were handled by paramedics on ambulances.

"Back then, we went to two or three fires a day," he said recently. As people became educated in preventing fires, and building codes now include fire-resistant materials and construction techniques, the number of fire calls dropped.

Most of the calls now are for medical emergencies. Most firefighters are trained paramedics or emergency medical technicians. Any kind of medical call for help results in responses by ambulance and fire engine crews.

"Now, it's completely turned around," Centofante said. His shift at Station 34 on Van Dyke Road west of Dale Mabry Highway may get a call or two a month for a fire.

His squad, consisting of three other firefighters working on Engine 34, showed up promptly for work at 7:30 a.m. on Dec. 10, six months ago Friday. It was just another day. A 24-hour shift after 48 hours off.

"We did the regular things," Centofante said. "We checked the equipment, figure out what we need for groceries and go to the store."

The day passed without note. There was a call for a fall, and one for an overdose. Centofante read the calls aloud from an old-fashioned logbook, noting the time each call came in.

Then he came to 9:18 p.m. The entry is written in red.

Carlos Quintela's job is to make sure the fire engine is ready to roll.

"I take Engine 34 and make sure that the truck is good to go and that all the equipment is good to go," he said.

He's no newcomer to the Hillsborough County Fire Rescue service. The 43-year-old native of Cuba has been fighting fires and responding to emergencies for 16 years. He settled on the service after bouncing from job to job in his late teens and early 20s. His family moved to Tampa in 1970. He worked in the family grocery, and one night found himself parking cars at Bern's steak house with three pals.

The three decided to become firefighters. Two work with Tampa Fire Rescue, and Quintela, since 1988, has fought fires on the county's turf.

Quintela has heard screams from people crushed in the wreckage of vehicles and has patched sobbing victims of domestic violence, but nothing prepared him for what he saw Dec. 10.The 9:18 p.m. call was to help multiple shooting victims, including children. He braced himself and ran to the truck.

When a shooting call comes in and dispatchers say there are multiple victims, including children, Norman Gintz expects the worst. Gintz, 42, has lots of experience treating traumatic wounds.

He was a corpsman in the U.S. Navy in the early 1980s and continues to serve in the reserves. He has been a paramedic with the county's fire rescue service for eight years.

When his station got the call on Dec. 10, Gintz was ready.

"You put your gloves on and check the equipment," he said. Trauma calls such as this, often messy and gut-wrenching, are the easiest to treat, he said. Other medical calls may be shrouded in mystery, leaving paramedics guessing as to the cause of an illness or injury. With gunshot wounds, though, the protocol varies little.

"You stop the bleeding, you may have to intubate," he said. "It's not like a medical call. It's kind of cut and dried."

On Dec. 10, Gintz found an opportunity to put his military trauma medical skills to work.

The Scene Was Chaotic
Engine 34 blasted out of the station en route to the shooting call at 16867 Le Clare Shores Drive. Sirens blared and lights sliced through the night. The street is less than a mile from the station, and Centofante, Quintela and Gintz arrived in no time. They were the first firefighter-paramedics on the scene.

The truck met two deputies at the corner, and another deputy frantically waved the truck onto the street.

"That's when I knew we had something," Centofante said. The deputy told them two people were down. One, a child later identified as Sean O'Mara, 12, was dead. The other, Patricia Parra-Perez, Sean's mother, was fighting for life.

"She was alive and conscious," Centofante said. "She was talking to us."

That was shocking. Suffering from a bullet wound to the head, the 40-year-old woman should have been unconscious, he said.

"She was telling us her hand hurt," he said. When she was shot, she had lifted her hand in a defensive move. The bullet pierced her palm and went into her forehead.

"She said she was cold," he said, "that she couldn't breathe."

Two neighbors, one a nurse, were cradling her when paramedics arrived.

"They were covered in blood," Centofante said. "It looked like a bloodbath."

Less than 30 feet away, Sean was slumped in the doorway of his home. He had been shot in the head.

Neighbors, some upset and others in shock, crowded the street, Quintela said. He and his colleagues didn't know what had happened. They didn't know whether the shooter was still at large. When deputies cleared the crowd, Quintela rushed to Parra-Perez.

"People were everywhere," Quintela aid. "We had to focus on what we were doing and still look around. We didn't know who's who, or who's what. Or who the shooter was.

"You can't get into a tunnel vision," he said. "You have to watch the crowd, to watch your partner's back."

Quintela went to Sean, but there was nothing he could do to help the boy.

He returned to Sean's mother, who was still alive. Gintz was tending to her by this time.

Illuminating the scene were two reindeer, Christmas decorations, next to Parra-Perez. The lights helped, Gintz said. Blood was everywhere. It filled her purse, smeared the side of a car and flowed down the driveway.

Gintz glanced at the child and knew from the distance the boy was dead. He knelt at the woman's side.

"You never walk past a patient you can save," he said.

"She was alert," Gintz said. "She said she was in pain, agony. I was trying to figure where her injuries were. I was surprised she was talking. Usually, that type of head wound is fatal."

Within minutes, he got an intravenous line into her and saline flowed, replacing, at least temporarily, the lost blood. A breathing tube was inserted in her throat, and she was given medication to immobilize her, allowing the respirator to do its job.

She was flown to St. Joseph's Hospital in a helicopter.

The paramedic team then checked other victims. About 100 feet away were the bodies of Lauren O'Mara, 13, and her father, the shooter, Robert O'Mara. After killing his children, he shot himself in the head.

With the only survivor on the way to the hospital, Centofante, Quintela and Gintz began to wind down. After two hours at the bloody scene, they packed up and left. But their thoughts continued to churn, and, in many respects, the trouble was just beginning for the firefighters.

A Lasting Effect
"Probably, I'll be thinking about this one for a while," Gintz said.

The firefighters couldn't shake the images of what they had seen, and in each mind's eye, the scenario played and replayed.

Centofante sensed that his men, each of whom has children, needed help, and called for a critical incident stress debriefing team.

It's a rarity for him. In his 26-year career, he has sat through such a session only a handful of times.

The team -- a clergyman, a couple of deputies and Tampa police officers, and other firefighters -- arrived about 1 a.m. Dec. 11. Centofante, Gintz, Quintela and two other paramedics who assisted talked about what had .

Most of the therapy was talking, getting thoughts out and finding out they were shared by others.

"We were encouraged to talk about it," Centofante said. "They said it would take several days before it completely hits you."

That was true. All agreed the grisly scene on Dec. 10 deeply affected them.

"Emotionally, it was the worst thing I have ever been to," Quintela said. The scene replays often in his mind.

"I'm nicer to my kids and I'm nice to my family," he said. "I've realized that all the little meaningless things we fight about are nothing."

The Endless Night
That emergency call has affected him in other ways.

"I find myself wanting to be alone a lot," he said. "I'll go home on my day off and won't answer the phone. My spouse doesn't understand, and I don't want to talk about it. I just want to be a couch potato and watch mild movies. Old, black and white movies."

The counseling that night and the discussions about the disturbing event wasn't the end of the day for the company of Engine 34.

The debriefing session lasted maybe 90 minutes. The firefighters felt a bit better about what they had been through, but they knew that the scene might never go away, that the days to come might be even more difficult.

The discussion wound down. The debriefing team left.

That's when the second call came in for help at Le Clare Shores Drive.

It was 3 a.m. on Dec. 11 when the alarm sounded.

"We were told to go back for a clean-up," Centofante said. Everyone thought it was odd that the crew that responded to the horrific scene, who had just undergone counseling to ease the pain of what they saw, would be called back to hose the sidewalks.

Centofante, Quintela and Gintz boarded the truck and headed back.

"We poured peroxide onto the area and mopped up what we could and bagged some of it," he said. The rest, "we washed off so the kids wouldn't see it later in the morning."

"We had to go back to the scene," Quintela said, shaking his head. "We just went with it. It didn't make much sense, but what are we going to do?"

In the months after the shooting, the three paramedics first to arrive at the scene continued to report to work while they dealt with the trauma. They continued to go on calls, help injured and sick people, and occasionally put out fires. Just like always.

What they took out of that night varies.

"I can't believe how good people are," Quintela said, talking about the neighbors who helped keep Parra-Perez alive until help arrived.

Parra-Perez is recuperating from the near-fatal wound.

"I never thought she would have made it even to the hospital," Gintz said.

Centofante is just as amazed.

"I would like to talk to her," he said. "But I doubt she even knows who I am."

"We had to focus on what we were doing and still look around. We didn't know who's who, or who's what. Or who the shooter was."

Carlos Quintela