I can't count the number of times I've heard this from older, more experienced firefighters: "When it's children, it always gets to you."
So far in my firefighting career, I haven't had to deal with the death or serious injury of a child. But after Saturday, I certainly know what those "old timers" are talking about.
About mid-morning, we were dispatched to a mobile home fire in an area a few miles north of our city. From the moment our radio tones sounded, I knew that the situation was going to be absolutely nothing or would be very bad. Of course, it was the latter.
When I arrived on scene, most of the trailer had already been destroyed by fire. What was left of the home was filled with dark smoke. One of the first things I noticed was the family displaced by the fire. A mother and her two young children were walking towards the road as I made my way to what was left of their house. The mother's eyes seemed dry, but her face was red from crying. I paid little attention to her young son because walking directly towards me was his six-year-old sister.
"Our house burned up," she said. "You have to stay away."
Sitting here, there is no way I can adequately describe how I felt in that moment. Perhaps this points to my failure as a writer but I'd like to think that it instead points to the power of the moment. She was so little. I was so big. Yet she was so matter of fact in her delivery. Her house was gone and she knew it. Her's was situation I could neither dispute or repair. Of course, it didn't help that it was only three days shy of Christmas.
Like a son struggling to make up a story to explain a bad deed to his father, I knew what I wanted her to hear but had no clue how to say it. I stammered, "I'm with the fire department and I'll see what I can do." I felt like I was telling the kid there was no Santa Claus. There was little, if anything, we could do to help and I knew it.
Okay, so I thought I knew it.
As it turns out, I was wrong.
We quickly knocked down the fire, but the home and almost all of its contents -- including what few toys, shoes and clothes they owned -- were destroyed. As soon as the fire was out, we packed up our gear and headed back to the station as we always do.
I knew I felt bad for the family, but I initially regarded this fire as I did any other. Many of the calls we respond to can easily be regarded as some of the worst moments in the lives of those that need us. Of course, the catch for us is to not let the calls carry similar emotional weight. If we let today's fire get to us, it makes fighting tomorrow's fire a little bit tougher than it should be. But when we returned to the station after the trailer fire, I took my involvement in this call to a higher level than usual.
In a small town, word of tragedy spreads quickly. Only minutes after we filled our engine with water and found comfortable seats in the office, the first call to help came in. A local church wanted to donate clothes if we could find out sizes. Shortly afterward, a discount store chain offered to provide new clothes, toiletries and a few children's toys to the family. Before long, I found myself in the middle of a growing relief effort -- something extremely unusual to my fire department.
What started as a one-hour fire ended up consuming my entire day. During mid day, we organized our efforts. In the afternoon, I took Jessie along with me as I walked the isles of the discount store picking out gifts and clothes for children I didn't even know. And interestingly enough, I think that may be some of the best time I've ever spent Christmas shopping.
In the evening, we finally had the chance to make our delivery. The family found temporary refuge at a relative's house. It felt good to walk in bearing essential items like clothes and shoes... And it felt good to walk in with toys wrapped for the children to open on Christmas.
However, we saved the best for last. Neither the family displaced by the fire or the family they lived with had the means to afford much more than what was necessary to live. Because of this, the house where they were all staying was without a holiday staple -- a Christmas tree. With the help of the discount store, we were able to bring in a tree complete with lights and decorations.
The mother seemed to appreciate the community's generosity. And the little boy was certainly happy. But the expression on the little girl's face was the look that should appear on every kid's mug this time of year -- the magical glow of awe.
"Is that our Christmas tree?" she inquired. As soon as she received confirmation, she was happy to claim possession. "Look at our tree! Isn't it pretty?" It was.
After a few moments of polite conversation with the family, I reached down and told each of the children to have a Merry Christmas. If I'd said much more, my voice would have cracked. I felt my eyes water up. I quickly turned and made my exit with another lesson learned.
"When it's children, it always gets to you."