Kremlin Firefighter Chris Henry, left and Fire Chief Derrick Harris check out hydraulic extrication tools used to free two teens following a grain auger accident last August.
Photo credit: Courtesy of The Enid News and Eagle/Bonnie Vculek
KREMLIN, Okla. — With an accident as horrific as the August incident that cost the legs of two area teens, victims aren’t the only ones who need to heal.
Emergency personnel who respond to such a scene also need to heal.
Several area fire departments responded when Bryce Gannon and Tyler Zander were caught in a floor auger at the Zaloudek grain elevator in August. Firefighters from Krem-lin, Hunter, Hillsdale-Carrier, Pond Creek and Breckinridge rushed to the scene to help. All told, 20 firefighters — some of them trained emergency medical technicians — responded that day. Additionally, two depu-ties from the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, Garfield County Emergency Manager Mike Honigsberg and numerous community members came to assist. Ground ambulances from Pond Creek and Enid stood by until helicopters arrived from Stillwater and Oklahoma City so the teens could be flown directly from the scene.
Garfield County Sheriff Bill Winchester said emergency responders have learned over the years it’s important to have critical incident stress management sessions after a highly traumatic call — a session where those who dealt with the emergency can deal with the emotions they pushed aside during the crisis.
The intense trauma of some calls can be so troubling to first responders they quit their jobs afterward, Winchester said. The Kremlin Fire Depart-ment experienced that after Bryce and Tyler’s accident.
“We’ve had two walk away,” said Krem-lin Fire Chief Derrick Harris.
Josh Stephens, Pond Creek fire chief, said rescue work isn’t something just anyone can do — and some calls are harder than others. Calls involving someone the rescue worker knows, or children, are harder to deal with.
“We’re human, too,” said Rick Oller, Breck-inridge fire chief. “You lie in bed at night and that’s the kind of thing that runs through your mind.”
Gary Lillie, pastor of Hawley Baptist Church at Nash and chaplain for the Nash and Hawley fire departments, understands how traumatic such calls are. He has special training in helping emergency responders work through their emotions.
He met with the firefighters who were called to the Kremlin elevator that same day, and again a couple days later. The purpose of the first meeting was to tell them what they can expect in the coming few days.
“It’s kind of a time for them to stop, take a breath, and say we’re done with this scene and it’s time to move on, but this is what we can expect,” Lillie said. “The debriefing was a couple of days later.”
About 90 percent of emergency workers will experience critical-incident stress at some point in their careers, Lillie said.
“Out of a single incident, about 30 percent will do fine, about 30 percent will have moderate critical-incident stress, and for about 30 percent, it will be severe,” Lillie said.
The stress can manifest itself as sleep disturbances, flashbacks, inability to concentrate, anger, impatience, withdrawal, second-guessing their actions during the incident, agitation, excessive use of alcohol or tobacco, fear the next call will be like that one, and possessiveness toward people they love.
The stress is a normal reaction to an abnormal event, Lillie emphasized.
“If it’s not treated, it will lead to post-traumatic stress syndrome,” Lillie said.
The Northwest Oklahoma Cri-tical Incident Stress Management team brings three peers, a chaplain and a mental health professional together to meet in an incident debriefing with the emergency responders.
“We have several stages we go through during the debriefing,” Lillie said. “The first is their initial response to the incident — what they did, what they saw.”
Then the discussion moves to what thoughts went through their minds after it was over, and what positive things came out of the event.
“The last thing we do at the debriefing is, we go over all of those signs and symptoms that they have or will experience — and that they are having a normal reaction to an abnormal event,” Lillie said. “The team lingers after the meeting so people can talk to them.”
A debriefing is strictly confidential, Lillie said.
“Our goal is to get everyone to talk about their feelings and emotions, because if you talk about it, you will heal faster,” Lillie said.
Healing the community
Kremlin-Hillsdale High School, where Bryce studies, and Chisholm High School, where Tyler is a student, immediately recognized the impact the tragedy would have on the boys’ classmates.
In fact, Kremlin-Hillsdale enrollment was the same day as the accident, so the school’s first chance to help students deal with the event was that evening.
Superintendant Steve Hoffsommer said Harris and Lillie came to enrollment to talk with Bryce’s classmates. Hoffsommer also talked to the students.
“I drove to Oklahoma City to the hospital and was with the family that day,” Hoffsommer recalled. “I was with them when the doctor talked to them.”
Hoffsommer said the kids were given accurate information about Bryce’s injuries and his status.
Additionally, school staff talked to students about Bryce at an assembly on the first day of class, two weeks after the accident. The school arranged a senior class trip to Oklahoma City to see Bryce on the second day of school, because 10 of the students had not been able to see Bryce after the accident.
“He was sitting up in bed,” Hoffsommer said. “I think that was such a relief for them to go in there and see him. And I think that was the first time those who were there had a sense of ease.”
Support was available at school any time students needed it.
“Because we’re such a small school, every one of our faculty members knew Bryce,” Hoffsommer said. “We knew that any time the kids needed to talk about it, the teachers would take time to talk.”
Jaymie Morley, Chisholm High School principal, said that on the day of the accident, a number of people went to Oklahoma City.
“Three of us got the word from his mother while he was still caught in the auger and we went to the Kremlin grain elevator, but they were gone,” Morley said.
The assistant principal, Morley and the superintendent, Roydon Tilley, as well as about 40 students and their parents all went to Oklahoma City that day and evening.
School officials also reached out to churches in the community to call for a prayer service.
“The day it happened we started banners and cards and a poster to send get-well messages and give the kids a place to express their feelings,” Morley said.
School staff at Chisholm also served as a point of information about Tyler.
“On the first day of school, we had a bulletin board that had updates on it,” Morley said. “Tyler’s dad sent us daily updates on how Tyler was doing.”
The bulletin board also had information on fundraisers that were taking place. A card was always on the board, and as it was filled up, it was sent to Tyler and another card was placed.
“We were at his home when he came home, and that was pretty awesome,” Morley said.
Morley points to the wider effect the tragedy had, touching people beyond northwest Oklahoma.
“It touched a lot of people,” Morley said. “There is a lady who lives in Florida who has connections to Enid. She began praying for the boys.”
While Tyler still was in the hospital, the woman came to visit him in the hospital. She also made a quilt for Tyler.
“I think it’s just touched a lot of people even outside northwest Oklahoma,” Morley said. “And I think it will progress. I think peoples’ lives will continue to be touched.”
Republished with permission of The Enid News and Eagle.