Lifesavers

Troy, Alabama. Five years ago. It was a funeral unlike anything you have ever seen before.

It was raining hard in Alabama. The bleachers in Troy University’s Sartain Hall Gymnasium were filling with mourners. Lots of them. One by one the people came.

Outside the gym a Haynes Life Flight helicopter sat parked on the pavement for effect. Surrounding it were fire trucks, police cruisers, and five-hundred acres of ambulances and flashing lightbars. The horizon was packed with emergency vehicles.

The visitors came from all over the Yellowhammer State. Coffee, Pike, Covington, Dale, Elmore, and Montgomery. They came to honor their own.

In the gym, on the free-throw line, were three caskets draped in American flags. The funerary boxes were huddled together in tight formation. The hems of their flags barely moved in the air conditioning.

Those in attendance were wearing EMS blues, flight suits, duty belts, and class-A uniforms. Many were on-call. Radios were still clipped to vests. Tactical boots were muddy. Some had been working long shifts and were running on fumes.

Gentle murmurs came to a close when an audio recording played on the sound system overhead. It was loud. The sound reverberated off the smooth surfaces and wooden floor.

This arena usually only hears the noises of screaming fans and the squeaks of rubber shoes. On this day the court heard the last radio transmission for Haynes Life Flight Two.

The helicopter crashed eighty miles south of Montgomery, only days before this service. This radio call was a ceremonial message to the deceased, a traditional send off among the initiated.

Static. “November-Nine-One-One-Golf-Foxtrot, we show you departing with four souls onboard, we’ll take it from here…” More static.

The sounds of sniffs were everywhere. And EMS workers don’t cry often.

The accident had happened during the wee hours on an average Saturday. The helipad crew at Troy Regional Medical Center was having a quiet night when a call from dispatch came in. It was a single-vehicle accident on County Road 606.

Helicopter pilot Chad Hammond checked the weather. There was a stiff low cloud rolling through, visibility was poor. Chad made a judgment call then radioed back something to the tune of: “Copy that, dispatch, we’ll take it from here.”

Then it was business as usual for the emergency responders. The three-person crew loaded supplies, working together like a choreographed off-Broadway troupe.

They were a tight unit. First responders are family. They log twenty-four-hour shifts together, they laugh together, they cook together, they get on each other’s nerves together, and occasionally they leave this world together, too.

The Haynes bird clipped through the Coffee County mist searching for wreckage in oatmeal-like fog. They found it. The chopper touched down, the responders loaded the critical patient. And even though Chad was a pilot, he probably helped load the stretcher.

“Lotta pilots don’t help load patients, but he did,” said one first responder. “He was a helluva pilot.”

The ceremony concluded. A bugle played “Taps,” each flag was folded thirteen times, and caskets were loaded by those who have lifted one too many stretchers in their day.

But the show was just beginning. Outside was the main event.

It was a scene described by some as an earthquake. It sounded like a mountain was falling. Hundreds of diesel engines and emergency vehicles roared to life and shook the world until the treetops quivered. And the drizzle of south Alabama suddenly became red and blue.

One man recalls the scene. “You shoulda seen the lights. Highway Two-Thirty-One was nothing but red, yellow, and blue when all those vehicles came into Troy. Never seen lights like that. Never.”

The procession began. The departing ambulance that carried a casket received a full police escort. The motorcade turned onto the highway, and even those in the vehicles could not believe what they were seeing.

Miles of highway were lined with fire engines, pumper trucks, turntable ladder trucks, heavy rescue vehicles, tiller trucks, and any 600-horse Cummins diesel that bore a civic decal.

There were peace officers, deputies, elected officials, EMTs, patrolmen, and a badge every two feet.

There were women bouncing babies on hips, and kids waving miniature American flags. Highway overpasses flew Old Glory from the guardrails. There were salutes from elderly men, and prayers from those who grieved.

Chad, Stacey, and Jason were their names. Their patient was Zach.

They’ve been gone for a while now. But I still think about them. They died as public servants, but they were also parents, neighbors, churchgoers, practical jokers, and each of them was somebody’s baby.

But more than that, they forever remain part of a uniquely beautiful American fraternity. A kinship of healers, rescuers, and lifesavers who provide calming voices to the panic-stricken. They represent safety to those endangered. They give peace to the dying. They are literal angels to an indifferent and sometimes cruel world.

In other words, they were first responders.

39 comments

  1. Bob E - June 4, 2021 6:45 am

    Something different from you – very beautiful and meaningful.
    Thank you.

    Reply
    • joan moore - June 4, 2021 10:29 am

      Thank you for your heart felt tribute.

      Reply
  2. Steve McCaleb - June 4, 2021 7:10 am

    Thank God for those who daily put their lives on the line for strangers.

    Reply
  3. Debbie g - June 4, 2021 8:30 am

    Beautiful memorial thank you Sean

    Reply
  4. Lulu - June 4, 2021 8:56 am

    Thank you Sean for such a beautiful piece honoring those who gave it everything. We can never thank those dedicated people for all they do.

    Reply
  5. Ann - June 4, 2021 9:27 am

    This is a beautiful tribute to all brave caring responders 🙏🏻❤️🇺🇸

    Reply
  6. dymenovel - June 4, 2021 10:46 am

    Beautiful tribute…thank you for sharing their story.

    Reply
  7. eliza - June 4, 2021 10:56 am

    Wow! thank you for a loving tribute!

    Reply
  8. Melinda Ratchford - June 4, 2021 10:57 am

    Beautifully told. Can feel it and see it without having been there. The true mark of a storyteller Thank you

    Reply
  9. Linda - June 4, 2021 11:36 am

    Beautiful, those men and women see the worst of everything and always run towards it to help. And all for very little money. In my mind they are priceless. So every time I see one, I thank them. They are who we call on every time we are in trouble, hurt and scared. I shudder to think how dim our lives would be without them. Thank you, Sean for the reminder.

    Reply
  10. Karen Holderman - June 4, 2021 11:49 am

    Thank you for this loving tribute to these fine men and woman..

    Reply
  11. chip plyler - June 4, 2021 12:19 pm

    Amen…

    Reply
  12. George Hefley - June 4, 2021 12:33 pm

    Powerful imagery clouded me up! Salute all first responders!

    Reply
  13. GloriaBuffkin - June 4, 2021 12:38 pm

    God bless these people that help everyone, no matter who it is!!! This made me cry like a baby. 🥲
    Thank you Sean for your post!! I love each and every one!!

    Reply
  14. Rich Owen - June 4, 2021 12:50 pm

    This brought a tear to my eyes for two reasons. One, currently my youngest granddaughter (19yo) just graduated from Clayton County, GA, firefighters’ training and is working toward becoming an EMT. Second, in October 2004, South Walton’s AirHeart One went down in the early morning hours on the way back to their station. Three lives were lost. At the time, I was freelancing for the Walton Sun newspaper. I knew many of the South Walton Fire District firefighters having worked various scenes with them since 1999. I was honored when they asked me to be the lone photographer to record the church service for these brave men. None of the photos from inside the church were ever published but I made CD’s for family along with images from the procession and burials. I cannot tell how humble I felt when the SWFD chief ask me to be the sole documentarian of the church service. To this day, I remember October 28, 2004.

    Reply
  15. Jan - June 4, 2021 1:00 pm

    Beautiful and well deserved tribute. Thank you to all First Responders and to you, Sean, for reminding us of the magnitude of their lives!

    Reply
  16. robnrockin - June 4, 2021 1:08 pm

    Thank you for sharing your gift with words Sean…thank you for today.

    Reply
  17. Trilby - June 4, 2021 1:14 pm

    My son is a critical care flight paramedic. This was a good depiction of this group of unsung heroes. Thank you for honoring these amazing men and women who meet us when we need a miracle and are faithful to carry us toward hope.

    Reply
  18. Frank D. Shaffer - June 4, 2021 1:20 pm

    Having been an EMT on a truck, A firefighter on an engine, a 911 dispatcher in the chair and now an emergency manager, I know how that moment feels. I have had to do the last call for many of our fellow officers and first responders. Those who did not cave to the fight but brought order to chaos. I am glad you remember them often. It would be nice if more people did. Thank you for your kind words and you vivid memories. Those of us who call them family and those who are actual family are honored.

    Reply
  19. Eleanor Dietrich - June 4, 2021 1:33 pm

    I’m crying too, beautifully written….

    Reply
  20. Susan Corbin - June 4, 2021 1:37 pm

    Tears are washing my eyes clear this morning. My daughter and her long-time boyfriend are part of the first responder family in Keyser, WV. She drove the ambulance and he was an EMT. Health problems and new requirements have taken them out of service but they remain part of the family.

    Reply
  21. Brenda - June 4, 2021 2:24 pm

    Such a beautiful description of our first responders and their contributions to those they meet on what may be the worst day of their patients’ life! May they Rest In Peace and God bless their families!

    Reply
  22. Tom Wallin - June 4, 2021 2:53 pm

    Very sad. But I think about all the good they did in their lives. How many lives and families they have saved over the years. That was a super sendoff which I could picture in my mind. God Bless them and all the others like them doing good by helping others every day. We are very fortunate to have such wonderful neighbors and Americans helping us every day.

    Reply
  23. Lisa - June 4, 2021 3:03 pm

    School is out for the summer, but I was working in my room this morning when I read your post about 9:00. Within an hour, a helicopter landed on the gym parking lot where it met an ambulance to transport a patient. I watched as the crew and ambulance staff exchanged information. A man was pacing back and forth next to his truck as they completed the preliminaries. From his gestures, which included wiping his face (eyes) with his shirt sleeve, I believe he was a relative. I remember the helpless feeling I had when they flew off with my mother many years ago; praying constantly during the three hour drive to the hospital. This morning, I prayed for this group of people and my mother.
    Love your posts, Sean! It looked like the pilot helped. 🙂

    Reply
  24. Lynda Gayle Knight - June 4, 2021 3:07 pm

    BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN❣️

    Reply
  25. elizabethroosje - June 4, 2021 3:14 pm

    Well done. We really don’t realize those we are depending on when the unexpected tragedy happens. I am researching 9/11 right now in NYC and the stories of the first responders there are poignant, harrowing and astounding. And I sure sensed the community there as well. Unsung heroes indeed…

    Reply
  26. Dean - June 4, 2021 3:24 pm

    They are all heroes in my opinion. Would be so hard to do with out them.
    Thanks so much for paying tribute to these 3

    Reply
  27. Christina - June 4, 2021 3:35 pm

    There is no greater love than one who lays down his own for others. Salute to Chad, Stacey and Jason.

    Reply
  28. Beverley Phillips - June 4, 2021 4:29 pm

    This is one of your very best, Sean. Thank you.

    Reply
  29. Linda keenum - June 4, 2021 4:50 pm

    oh my goodness!!! what a beautiful testimony……

    Reply
  30. Chasity Davis Ritter - June 4, 2021 5:15 pm

    In august 2020 my cousin Sgt Sherri Fowler of the Iowa Park, TX PD passed away after 30 years of service. She was a beloved member of the force and respected in her community. Her service was held at the football stadium. Both for attendees and because of covid procedures. The description of all the service vehicles was much as you described. I had never seen anything quite like it either. It really took your breath away and moved you. The people of the town standing along the precessional route waving flags and showing there support was something else entirely. I will never forget how she was honored and remembered that day. First responders, police officers and firemen as well as all those in the medical professions have and deserve my utmost respect. RIP to the three amazing people you wrote about and to my cousin as well. Continued prayers for all their families and friends too. Long May they be remembered

    Reply
  31. Linda Moon - June 4, 2021 7:04 pm

    Some lifesaving Angels were with me today. They’re not first responders, but they’re there for lots of us who need some saving regularly in hopes of extending our lives. Teenagers and old people were in the treatment area. It’s so very good to know there are Angels in this mortal world, Sean, and I hope the teens’ Angels extend them into old age. What an honor it was to read about Haynes Flight Two!

    Reply
  32. Rebecca Souders - June 4, 2021 7:24 pm

    A fine tribute, Sean.

    Reply
  33. MAM - June 4, 2021 7:45 pm

    Beautiful and tearful, because it was so well written, Sean. Our daughter, who is an M.D., started out as an EMT and flew on many a helicopter, as an EMT and as an M.D. I always worried, but I never knew about the flights until she reported them afterward. Once, when she flew to a situation and saved a young girl who almost drowned, the girl’s friend asked the pilot if the lady who saved her friend was a nurse. When the pilot replied,” No, she’s the doctor.” The girl’s eyes opened wide and she said: “Awesome!” I have always hoped that girl also became a doctor! We so love and appreciate our First Responders!

    Reply
  34. Sandra Nelsen - June 4, 2021 8:14 pm

    Reminds me of when the 19 firefighters of the Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots crew died fighting the Yarnell wildfire in 2013. Only one survived. He was not with the rest of the team. Always hope the families are well, and he is as well. They were quite a young group, so a lot of little children and unborn babies, think there were at least two who didn’t even get to met their daddies. Most were not full time, and didn’t even have death benefits like the full time firefighters.

    Reply
  35. Bill Harris - June 4, 2021 10:28 pm

    Thank you Sean

    Reply
  36. Patricia Gibson - June 4, 2021 11:58 pm

    Amen😢

    Reply
  37. Kate - June 6, 2021 1:35 am

    Crying as I read this

    Reply
  38. johnnie943 - June 6, 2021 7:45 am

    A beautiful tribute. Thank you, Sean.

    Reply

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