It took just 18 seconds for a lone gunman to inflict indescribable horror in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8, 2011. In 18 seconds, the 22-year-old man squeezed off 32 shots, making 31 hits, killing six people, and wounding 13 others including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.
At Firehouse World, a first due medic and two incident commanders detailed the operations that cleared the horrific shooting scene in just 52 minutes and then dealt with months of aftermath, including media barrages and criminal investigations that wore on those who were dealing with the emergency and the emotional baggage that went along with it.
The class, called “Tragedy in Tucson,” was taught by Northwest Fire/Rescue District Battalion Fire Chief Stu Rodeffer, Fire Chief Jeff Piechura and Firefighter Tony Compagno. It focused on lessons learned from the mass casualty incident and the fallout that plagued the department for weeks after the incident.
“You’d be amazed at how much your jurisdiction can change in just 18 seconds,” said Rodeffer, who acted as a street commander of the incident, reporting directly to the incident commander.
By way of background, Rodeffer reminded the nearly capacity classroom that Giffords was participating in a “Congress on Your Corner” constituent meeting in the parking lot of a busy strip mall and Safeway grocery store parking lot at 10 a.m. That’s when the shooting suspect, Jared Lee Loughner, pulled out a pistol, got himself in a Weaver shooting stance and opened fire. He repositioned himself, got a different angle and shot again.
For Rodeffer, it had already been a tough morning. It started with an unresponsive 51-year-old diabetic who was receiving CPR from his kids. Soon after clearing that scene he responded to a bicyclist struck by a motorist.
The first calls reporting a shooting at the La Toscana shopping center were received at about 10:10 and given the initial reports, a first-alarm medical assignment was toned, bringing lots of resources to the scene.
Rodeffer said the designation was for possible mass casualty incidents on the interstate or possible plane wrecks at the nearby airport. One could never have predicted or fully prepared for the horror they faced that day.
“Our strategy from the start was quick transport to definitive care,” Rodeffer said. “…The people had suffered shock trauma and there wasn’t a lot we could do on the scene. They needed to be in an operating room and it was our job to get them there as quickly as possible.”
All of the victims were in an area about the size of a small living room which made for a very compressed incident scene, Rodeffer said, adding that the death toll could have been much worse, save one thing.
“People in the parking lot had tackled the suspect and were pinning him down outside in front of the store,” Rodeffer said. “If it wasn’t for them, he would have killed many more people… That’s one of the unsung points of the incident.” He said a retired U.S. Army colonel and a couple of other bystanders tackled the suspect as he was changing magazines. A woman grabbed his gun as the colonel tackled him. The suspect was already detained by the time police arrived, he said.
It was also a time for shift change which meant there were far more personnel in the area than normal. It also helped that the police, fire personnel and sheriff’s department in the response area had already developed a cordial relationship, Rodeffer said.
“When you need a friend, it’s not the time to make one,” he said.
The initial response to the parking lot shooting suggested there were four confirmed dead and at least 10 other victims. That brought even more personnel and equipment to the scene.
Quite by chance, the view of the overall incident commander was blocked by arriving apparatus, Rodeffer said, adding that was a “stroke of genius” because it allowed the commander to focus rather than be distracted by the blood and carnage on the floors and walls.