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.