Newtown first responders carry heavy burdens

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 20, 2012 at 7:48 pm •  Published: December 20, 2012
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Firefighter Marc Gold, who rushed to offer help even though his company was not called, said he is haunted by the trauma of the parents and the faces of the police who emerged from the building.

"I saw the faces of the most hardened paramilitary, SWAT team guys come out, breaking down, saying they've just never seen anything like this," said Gold, a member of the Hawleyville Volunteer Fire Department. "What's really scary to me is I'm really struggling, and I didn't see the carnage."

After escorting the last group of children from the school to safety, Gold also was positioned outside the school to help with the injured, but he never had the opportunity.

"Most of my emotions are guilt, guilt because we weren't able to do something, guilt for the accolades I'm getting," said Gold, a 50-year-old father of three. "It doesn't feel good when people say nice things to me. It feels good for a second, and then you feel guilty for feeling good."

Joel Faxon, a member of the Newtown Police Commission, said the trauma experienced by the officers should be treated no differently from physical injuries.

"The first Newtown police officers on the scene at the Sandy Hook Elementary School minutes after the assassin began his rampage witnessed unspeakable carnage," said Faxon, adding that the governor and state lawmakers should change laws if needed to ensure the officers receive due treatment and benefits. "We owe them at least this much for facing down such evil."

One aspect of the tragedy that may help these first responders recover is the outpouring of support from around the world, according to Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute at Tulane University.

"This is an international event. All you have to do is say 'Sandy Hook first responder' and everyone nods their head in understanding," he said. "They don't have to do it in isolation."

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was one of the people to visit Newtown on Thursday, stopping by a firehouse.

The fact that responders were able to be of assistance in the tragedy will help ease their burdens, Figley said, but the involvement of so many young victims sets Newtown apart from other shootings. The Connecticut police union, AFSCME Council 15, said it has been offering counseling assistance to members across the state, and neighboring towns that sent officers have provided mandatory counseling for their Newtown responders.

"It would be ludicrous to say this wouldn't have some kind of permanent effect on anybody who dealt with it," said George Epstein, operations director for the Connecticut Critical Incident Stress Management Team, which deployed immediately after the shooting to aid the first responders and has been holding small group counseling sessions.

Barresi said the counseling has been helpful to him because it is led by other first responders who have been through similar experiences.

With Newtown enduring a relentless string of children's funerals and nonstop media attention, Gold said it has been difficult to find the space to process everything, and he appreciated the support he found in the group counseling. He said he will never forget the events of that day, but he hopes the pain dulls with time.

"My heart is broken for these families beyond anything I can explain to you," he said.

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers John Christoffersen and David Klepper in Newtown; Jim Fitzgerald in Katonah, N.Y.; and Frederic J. Frommer in Washington.