December 21, 2012

First responders to Newtown school bear scars

As more victims are buried, police and firefighters struggle with what they saw at Sandy Hook.

By MICHAEL MELIA The Associated Press

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The Associated Press A boy sits outside a church before the memorial service for Lauren Rousseau in Danbury, Conn., on Thursday. Rousseau, 30, was one of the 26 teachers and children shot to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday.

Photos by The Associated Press

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While mourners gather outside of Trinity Episcopal Church on Thursday during funeral services for Benjamin Andrew Wheeler, one of the students killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last week, a hearse with another shooting victim passes by.

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Authorities say the victims were shot with a high-powered, military-style rifle loaded with ammunition designed to inflict maximum damage. All the victims were shot at least twice, the medical examiner said, and as many as 11 times. Two victims were pronounced dead at a hospital, while all others died in the school.

Initially, only police were allowed to enter the building amid concerns about a second shooter. They are credited with helping to end the rampage by gunman Adam Lanza, who killed himself as officers stormed the building. But some responders struggle with not having been able to do more and a feeling that they do not deserve praise.

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 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.

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.

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

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