We’re in our station. It’s May in the mountains and it’s snowing. Not just snow, but hail and rain in a band a half mile wide. It only takes a few minutes to get four inches deep.
We all know what’s going to happen next, but we’re shocked by where it happens. Right behind our station, a big SUV slides off the interstate at high speed and rolls multiple times down the arroyo.
We quickly shake off our surprise and move into our practiced routine. Two of us go out the station’s back door to do a size-up and the rest bunker up and head for the trucks.
I jog to the crash and get there in time to see the small trees that have taken the impact of the SUV still quivering.
Can we help?
But here is what strikes me.
Within minutes, a dozen people show up—I don’t even know where they come from—all there to help; a couple of cowboys, a guy in a suit and a young girl slide down the arroyo towards the crash. The crashed SUV is packed with kids, jammed up against each other. It’s on its side, propped up on the slope against small piñons. It’s precarious but this group of Samaritans is determined to help the family out of the car. The young girl crawls on her knees through the mud and slush, through the window and into the car to help those trapped inside.
Nothing inspires us more than watching individuals
come to the aid of strangers, despite risk, despite harm.
A few minutes later the rest of our department arrives with our gear, our training and the experience of hundreds of these kinds of crashes. Everyone is extricated and all are fine.
But the image of all those strangers who, without qualm or doubt, came to help is what’s burned in my memory.
Nothing ignites our spirits more than watching individuals come to the aid of strangers, despite risk, despite harm.
We so badly need this inspiration! Daily we are inundated, beaten down by news that traverses the path from the cynical to the horrific, from the selfish to the gaudy. Our brains, evolved over millennia to interpret all “news” as local and tribal are now flooded with the images and voices of banality, harm and evil that come at us through our screens. The screens tell us that athletes and media stars are heroes. The screens tell us of obscure dangers and tell us to be afraid. It warps our perception. We wonder whether the world is devoid of good and of courage.
And then a bunch of strangers slide down a snowy slope to help at a car crash.
I should tell you, this happens all the time. I’ve seen:
- a guy in a suit stop his car, run over to help us and hold the head of a man—with a broken neck—in an overturned car while we completed an intubation.
- an older man, a neighbor, go up and down a rocky trail at night multiple times to help us locate a body, and then help us carry it out.
- an off-duty nurse, first on scene, crouch in the mud to comfort a trapped driver.
And I am inspired.
The word inspire means to “breathe in.” In these moments we “breathe in” this larger sense of who we are.
And I believe we are large, we are courageous and helpful. We are often just untested. Yet our test will come; it’s one promise the universe always keeps. We will come to the aid of another, or fight cancer, or care for the dying, or stand in a room, voice shaking, and speak to the powerful.
The Fire Department proves this to me. It’s an ironic vocation. On one hand we often exist in soul-wrenching darkness, surrounded by sadness. Yet the twist is there are angels who fly down slopes to help, who crawl on their bellies in the mud to whisper, “I am here, I want to help.”
The blessing of being a firefighter is that we see this and are inspired daily. I can’t imagine living in a world where I never hear the most spiritually powerful words in any language: “Can I help?”