Matt could see the devastation from the air. The tornadoes hit suddenly. While North Carolina wasn’t considered in Tornado Alley, they usually had three or four devastating cyclones every spring. They were hoping to find survivors, but those survivors would have injuries. Emergency crews from all over the region were arriving in the wide swath area the storms had torn through. Like many of his co-workers
Matt trained for emergency response with this Special Operations Deployment team. It was still mind-boggling to be put into service. They were given only enough time to pick up the duffle bags they were instructed to have ready.
Matt didn’t know when he would get back home. He worried about Sudah and Aden being alone. The area was still new to his family.
Laurie and Trisha promised to check in with her while Matt was gone; they both had been through S.O.D. deployments in the past and understood how important the support was to the families left back home. Most of the medics at the station had to train for the Special Operations Division and knew they had to be ready at a moment’s notice. That was why Matt already had a small bag packed when the telephone rang the night before; calls went out as soon as the twisters touched down.
Hitting the ground running, literally, Matt barely had time to put his duffle into a tent when he was directed onto a truck headed for the center of what used to be a town. He scrambled into a set of turnout gear and quickly checked the available supplies. The new arrivals checked in with Incident Command and received their I.D. tags before being assigned to separate trucks.
His truck stopped in front of the remains of a church in the center of town.
“We’re going to lower you down into the basement. The youth group was having a sleepover in the church, there are about six or seven still trapped down there.” The crew chief was shouting into the back of the truck towards Matt. “Jay’s going to go in with you. He’s going to cut and clear, you’re going to start treating.”
The bell tower was fully intact. It seemed an anomaly as it still stood on the church roof without a scratch. Unfortunately the church roof was lying on the ground covering a two story building that had fallen in on itself. Workers were trying to lift away debris but, like a game of pick-up sticks, they didn’t know which pile of lumber would cause the rest to collapse. With people still trapped, they couldn’t take chances.
Jay was lowered first, Matt followed. He could hear muffled sobbing in the dark – that was a good sign. With flashlights on, they found their way to the first victim. A teenage girl was battered from the debris falling in on her, her right leg was fractured and the bone was protruding through the shin. He felt sorry for her, he knew that it hurt. Splinting it the best he could in the confined space, she was soon ready to be lifted out. Next he moved on to a young boy, timber was lying across his chest and the boy couldn’t escape. Jay helped move the debris and the boy was free. Except for deep scratches and bruises, he was well enough to crawl towards escape. Matt was thankful the boy’s injuries were minor.
They moved four of the seven trapped victims out without incident; two were dead in the carnage long before they got there. The last victim, the pastor, was pinned beneath a heavy metal beam, the kind that was strong enough to hold the floor under an exuberant congregation during services. The man, though weak, was conscious and praying for the souls of the two teens who had perished. He told Matt and Jay how much he appreciated their help.
Matt knew that they had to get the beam off of the pastor before anymore of the floor above caved in. He also knew that lifting the beam would likely kill the man. The solid weight of the beam was crushing the man’s insides…ironically it was also the only thing that was keeping him from bleeding out.
“Son, please tell me honestly what my chances are.” The clergyman laid his hand on Matt’s arm as he was putting a face mask and oxygen on the trapped man. He noticed Matt’s slight hesitation. “The Lord sent you here to do his work and you are doing the best you can. But in the end it is God’s decision whether I live or die, not yours. You’ve already done so much good here by rescuing our children.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t get to them all in time…”
“That was God’s decision.”
Matt sighed. “Sir, I’m giving you some saline and pain killers. There’s a possibility that when we lift the beam off of you… it’s going to be very painful and you’ll probably lose consciousness.” He added sodium bicarb into the IV line to hopefully keep his patient’s blood pressure a little more even.
“Because of the pain?”
“No, because right now all of your blood is pushed up into your upper body and when the beam comes off it will be like opening a faucet. It’s all going to rush into your lower body and it will be like you are bleeding out.” He kept the explanation simple. Crush syndrome was often fatal. “I can’t give you enough saline to keep your upper body filled.”
Jay was busy positioning an inflatable pillow under the beam to lift it. He glanced sympathetically at Matt. Matt was trying to reassure the man without making any false promises.
“I don’t need any painkillers, son.”
“I think you’ll be more comfortable… and it will make our jobs easier.”
“I don’t feel any pain now…”
Matt wasn’t surprised, he doubted the man could feel any of his lower body. Even if he lived, there might be significant spine damage and paralysis. There was a huge risk he would suffer renal failure. The odds weren’t good, but Matt was going to try his best.
Matt spoke into his walkie-talkie. “Can you see if anyone up there has an old MAST on their truck?” MAST, military anti-shock trousers for short, weren’t used often anymore, but the inflatable trousers could help to keep the patient’s pressure up long enough to get him definitive treatment in the hospital. It was a shot–it was the only shot they really had.
A set of MAST trousers was taken from the local fire department’s EQ and sent down with a reeves and straps to package the Pastor in and transport him up top. Being unconscious would actually be a blessing thought Matt. Jay began to inflate the airbag and the trapped man went unconscious as soon as the pressure was relieved. Matt and Jay pulled him straight out and on to the reeves. He got the trousers on and inflated them quickly. Then they cocooned the reeves stretcher around the man and dragged him towards the hole they had been lowered through. Rescuers on top used straps to drag the man up while Matt and Jay guided him. It was slow going.
The floor above them shifted from the weight of the rescue workers and debris showered down. Matt’s helmet was knocked from his head, Jay was knocked down. When the dust settled both men were coughing. They could taste the plaster, but were otherwise unscathed. The rescue rope was tossed down for them and Matt pushed Jay towards it. As Jay was being pulled up and out of the hole more plaster fell and for the first time Matt actually worried that he might not make it out.
The local towns were torn apart. Houses and entire lives were collapsed. They found a child’s bed and favorite nighttime doll wedged into an uprooted tree, the distraught parents couldn’t find the child anywhere. Even all of the help that arrived couldn’t do anything to relieve the anguish that survivors felt over the loss of their family members. Nearly five days after the tornados tore through the area the hard decision was made to move from rescue attempts to the recovery of bodies. Matt and many of the other local EMS first responders were being sent home.
He only got to call Sudah one time during the four days that he was there. Matt was standing next to a group of federal rescue workers when he tried his cell phone and saw he couldn’t get a signal. One of the DMAT team members let him use a satellite phone to call and say hello to his wife. The two minutes went by too quickly. She sounded strained and he felt guilty for having left her alone for so long. He was going to have two days off after his return and he looked forward to making up lost time with his wife and son.
Each day they found fewer survivors and more casualties. The strain showed on all of their faces. It was hard not to see the faces of their own loved ones in a mass of bodies. They were told that this town was the worst hit, they had the least warning and it appeared the most casualties. The DMAT members set up pseudo hospitals in tents and survivors lined up for treatment of various injuries and other ailments. Supplies like food, water and blankets were being trucked in, but there wasn’t nearly enough yet. Matt and the other members of his S.O.D. team were ready to go home. They missed their families. There was no more they could do there.
As Matt boarded the chopper that was to bring him back to his corner of North Carolina he wondered about all of the patients he treated during his stay. It was always his habit not to follow up with the hospitals. His former paramedic partner, Julie, used to call him cold. There were too many victims, too many bodies, too many families torn apart. MCI’s, multi casualty incidents, were always emotionally draining just because of the sheer volume of lives destroyed.
He shook his head as he remembered how many times Julie tried to encourage him to attend CISD, critical incident stress debriefings, after brutal calls. Of course he always denied the need and called the sessions a sign of weakness. He would never admit it to her, but he considered asking about attending this time.
Since Matt left his car with Sudah while he was away, he needed a ride home from the station. John gave him a lift. He closed his eyes for just a moment, he thought, when John poked him to tell him to get out, he was already home. It felt so good to step onto the gravel of his walkway, he was happy to be home. He hoisted his duffle onto his shoulder. Matt waved John off and looked up towards the house.
Matt could see the broken living room window covered with cardboard. “Sudah?” He bounded up the steps to see her and make sure that everything was all right. “Sudah?” He worried when she didn’t answer right away. She finally appeared just as he entered the living room.
“Matt.” She sounded relieved when she saw him. “I heard a car.” Sudah held Aden protectively in her arms. “I didn’t know that you were coming home today.”
He was puzzled at her defensive posture, but still thrilled to see her and Aden. He took her in his arms. “Is everything okay?”
She nodded into his chest.
“What happened with the window? You didn’t get hurt or anything did you?” He stepped back and looked towards the cardboard covered portal. She had done a good job of cleaning up the glass and sealing the hole. “What were you trying to do?”
She looked scared as she looked up at him. “I did not do that.”
“But Aden…” His son was still crawling…there was no way he could have reached the window.
“Matt, I’m sorry.”
“A rock broke the window. There was a note on it.”
His raised his voice. “What? Someone threw a rock through our window? Did you call the police?”
She was barely audible. “No.”
Matt broke away and walked towards the window. “Why not?”
“I am sorry Matt. I do not wish to anger you.”
He whirled around and realized how worried she looked. “I’m not angry at you. Who the hell… What did the note say?”
Sudah sniffled. “That it is my fault.”
“For what? Do you still have the note?”
“I threw it into the garbage basket…”
“Do we still have it?”
He picked up the phone and began dialing. “Get it for me… please. When did this happen?”
“Sudah… please?” He sighed.
She turned and headed to the kitchen slowly.
Sudah was uncomfortable with the police there and looked frightened whenever they asked her questions. She kept adjusting the scarf she wrapped over her hair as a distraction while the police were there. Matt noticed that she was looked for his permission before she responded to any of the cops’ questions.
Suspecting Sudah’s nervous inclination, one of the officers said to Matt that he didn’t think they had a lot of trust in cops over in India. Sudah heard the comment and, for the first time, spoke in a voice loud enough to be heard without straining, “I am Pakistani.”
The words scrawled on the crumpled piece of paper that Sudah retrieved from the garbage said. “They are dead because of you.” Everyone agreed the reference must be about 9/11 and other terrorist bombings around the globe.
Sudah said she heard a car pull up and then the rock came flying through the window – she grabbed Aden and hid. She didn’t have a description of the car or who had thrown the rock.
Even though a police report was taken, the responding officers were frank–they didn’t think they would ever catch the culprit.
“Next time something like this happens, call us right away.” One of the police officers admonished Sudah.
“Next time?” She looked anxiously at Matt.
He put his arm around her shoulder, “I’m going to try to make sure there isn’t a next time.”
One of the police officers that Matt met once before at an emergency scene tried to offer some help. “If you have to go out of town again call us and we’ll send a patrol unit by every so often. Maybe that will make whoever did this think twice.”
That was a wasted trip, he thought as he watched the police cars pull away. They wouldn’t be able to help the inevitable; they wouldn’t be able to stop the payback that he planned. An eye for an eye.
She was very quiet after the police left.
“You okay baby?”
She nodded. “Please do not be angry with me…”
“I’m not.” He hugged her to him again. “I’m sorry I left you alone.”
“You had to go help people. They needed you.” He was quiet and she caressed his jaw. “Was it very sad Matt?”
Matt sighed. “Yeah.”
She demurely removed the scarf. “Our son is asleep.”
He grinned. “And?”
“I would like to show you that I missed you.”