Rescue workers cope with emotional trauma of I-40 crash

(WBIR - Jefferson City) Emergency responders from all over the region worked around the clock to help people involved in Wednesday's horrific crash on Interstate 40 that killed eight people. Now there is an effort to make sure the people who worked tirelessly to care for others will also take care of their own mental health.

"I don't know if it has started to sink in yet. I've been kind of numb since yesterday [Wednesday]," said John Holland, a Jefferson County paramedic. "I've been doing this 25 years and I've seen a lot of incidents, but nothing of this magnitude."

"In terms of bad accidents, this is the worst one I've had in my 20 years of doing this," said Tim Wilder with Jefferson County Emergency Services. "It's a sick feeling to pull up on a scene and to see the carnage and know there are people you are going to help and people you are not going to help."

"Basically, you see people laying everywhere. Then you've got fire to deal with," said Holland. "Everyone worked together so well. The best description I can give you is it was controlled chaos."

"Not only did we have paid people and volunteer rescue people working. We have the good Samaritan bystanders who got out of their cars to help. All of these people have seen something very traumatic," said Wilder.

When the adrenaline stops pumping and the job is done, these emergency workers can often fail to identify their own emotional trauma.

"Help for us either gets forgotten or we get a tough-man syndrome that we don't need the help, but it's really not the case," said Holland. "We've all had calls that stick with us that you can't get out of your head. Those are the ones that the critical stress debriefing really helps with."

At the Critical Stress Debriefings, emergency responders will get together and discuss what went well, what went wrong, and have an opportunity to discuss the traumatic situation as a group.

"It's just a chance to get things off your chest," said Wilder.

"We see things that the human eye is not supposed to see," said Holland. "I tell my kids all the time, I hope you never have to see anything like that."

Chaplains also serve a vital role during and after a traumatic emergency. During the events, they coordinate to care for the workers' physical needs with food, hydration, and access to restrooms. In the days after a critical event, the chaplains are made available to those who wish to talk about the traumatic stress.

"We'll get the rehab trailer up and spend time with people and help them sort it out," said firefighters chaplain Carl Ford of Knoxville. "We give them encouragement of what to do and talk about things that may have been troubling them. It really is emotional first aid. These situations really have an adverse effect on people, particularly as bad as this situation. When you deal with this kind emergency, you are changed. You walk away a different person. People leave a scene like this with a realization of how quickly life can change."

Ford said most agencies also have access to mental health professionals beyond just talking through issues with coworkers and chaplains. Organizations such as the Red Cross also offer counseling services for emergency responders.

While many workers claim horrific scenes like the crash on I-40 are just part of the job they signed up for, Wilder says their pride in helping others should not make them too proud to seek help for their own issues.

"We don't always have to have that macho facade. It's okay to need a little help and get it from the people who have answers for us. Hopefully the less experienced guys on squads will take that lesson away from this, because it wilily help them through their whole career," said Wilder.

Wednesday's crash was one of the deadliest in east Tennessee history. In 1990 a chain reaction pile-up of 99 cars near Calhoun killed 15 people.


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