Medic Beth Honaker holds her son while talking with her mother, Chief Denise Pouget and Cathy Hedrick with the NFFF.
Photo credit: Susan Nicol/Firehouse.com
Photo credit: Alexandria Fire Department
The shift for two Alexandria, Va. paramedics on Feb. 8, 2012 had been pretty much routine.
They had run a few calls, and were preparing chicken Alfredo for dinner at the fire station.
But it would end up anything but a normal day for Paramedics Joshua Weissman and Beth Honaker.
It would be Weissman’s final shift.
And, Honaker, who has since returned to duty, still struggles with the ‘what ifs.’
The two were in a medic unit dispatched to a car fire on I-395.
“Josh had a soft spot for car fires. While in D.C., he had saved someone from a car fire in front of his station,” she told Frederick County, Md. fire and rescue personnel Wednesday.
As they arrived that rainy night, they observed a person inside the car. Arlington firefighters were already there, and stretched a line across the guardrails.
She would later learn, the person inside the car was a firefighter retrieving a wallet.
“As he got out, I told him to be careful. He said: ‘I will.’”
Seconds later, she turned around. “His eyes met mine, and he was gone.”
She ran where he fell. It was dark. She couldn’t see him. She couldn’t hear him.
When she notified the officer on the engine of her partner’s plunge, she learned he knew of the opening because he had come close to falling earlier.
“I kept thinking Josh fell, Josh fell. But, he’s going to be fine. Maybe he’ll have a broken leg or ribs…But as I kept looking over the ledge, he wasn’t talking to me. I had to get down there and hold C-spine.”
As she approached her partner lying 30 feet below the overpass, she saw her captain doing CPR.
“I knew my friend was gone.”
Along that dark highway in the midst of chaos, she called her mother, Denise Pouget, who at the time was deputy chief of the Alexandria Fire Department.
Pouget said it’s a call she’ll never forget. “Mommy, mommy, mommy, come get me. Josh is dead…He fell. They’re doing CPR on him…”
While officers and fire officials went about their investigation, she sat alone most of the time. “No one would talk to me…”
Honaker praised fellow medics and firefighters who kept her partner alive so she, his wife and other family members could say ‘goodbye.'
For three weeks, there were offers from co-workers to fix dinner and help with chores around her house. But, she said her now ex-husband didn’t want anyone’s help. He didn’t want people coming to their house.
And, soon her colleagues turned a cold shoulder. The majority of the calls stopped.
It wasn't because they didn't care. Some really didn't know what to say, she added.
“Some were mad at me. Some said I had nerve to take off two months...They had no idea of the guilt I felt. I’ve played the ‘what ifs’ over and over and over…”
During that leave, she wasn’t basking on a beach somewhere. She was involved with a therapist who specializes in post traumatic stress.
It was obvious, she says now, that her colleagues didn’t know what to say, so they kept quiet. They shunned her.
One of the reasons she decided to speak up now is to encourage people to take the training to know what to say should something like that happen to one of their co-workers. She promotes Life Safety Initiative 13 -- access to psychological support -- whenever she can.
There were memorial services, but she was never invited. She felt forgotten.
At a special event, all involved with the tragic incident – except Honaker -- were awarded special pins.
“I wasn’t even mentioned...I was there. I lost my partner...I was told a few days later, if I wanted a pin they’d give me one…”
It was yet another example of her co-workers not understanding what to say or how to act. Since then, there's been training for personnel to teach them how to handle situations.
Honaker urged the group not to be afraid to seek help, and to keep an eye on co-workers who may be dealing with issues.
“I miss Josh every day. I named my son after him."
Almost on cue, the blonde-haired toddler ran toward his mother. But, he stopped short to make faces and wave to firefighters in the front row.
Pouget, now chief in Frederick County, said she was proud that her daughter was brave enough to share her story for the first time.
The chief, who has been promoting the NFFF’s 16 Life Safety Initiatives since her appointment last year, told her personnel: “Someone needs to take care of the living.”