Flames burst out of the house as Hall County firefighter John Waldrop responded to one of the more difficult calls of his career.
Three children inside the house were found in different rooms after firefighters used a ladder to enter. One child was in a walker in the kitchen; another crawled under an end table, with a 13-year-old trying to get them out.
The heat in the kitchen and the whole house rose quickly.
“There was a piece of metal pot that actually melted and dripped down onto the child’s head,” Waldrop said.
Only six months into his career, Waldrop had an introspective moment that night 25 years ago.
“That really was a check for me to look and say, ‘Wow, is this what it is to be a fireman?’” he said. “You take the calls like that and then you take all the calls that you go and extricate someone out, or you get someone out of a burning building. That’s what you’re here for.”
Now a captain with Hall County Fire Services, Waldrop enters his 26th year following a summer of several tough incidents involving children.
In June, Kaleigh Lynn Emfinger, 8, Eli Lamar Emfinger, 2, and Dalton Lee Martin, 13, all of Gainesville, died in a car accident when their mother, Amanda Lynn Pardue, 34, collided with a tractor trailer on Athens Highway. Five people died in that crash, including Pardue and Martin’s grandfather, Robbie Adam Hollis, 52.
In July, Sebastian Rangeo, 5, Julian Rangeo, 8, Emilee Guerra, 1, and Savannah Brown, 1, were hit by a car rolling backward on Price Way in Gainesville. All were later evaluated medically and returned home.
Other incidents outside of Gainesville, like the hypothermia death of 22-month-old Cooper Harris in Cobb County in June, have consumed the state’s attention.
“The first thing that goes through your mind is that’s someone’s child or grandchild. That’s the thought that goes through my mind. You get back and it breaks your heart. You call your children, you call your grandchildren. That’s one way that I get through it,” Waldrop said.
Both Waldrop and Lee Humphrys, a firefighter at Fire Station No. 16, responded to the Price Way rolling car incident and the crash on Athens Highway.
“The wreck on (U.S.) 129 is probably one of the worst wrecks I’ve ever seen on top of three kids that died in it,” Humphrys said. “We got back to the station and we just talked about it periodically throughout the day. That’s how I deal with it.”
From 2004 to 2012, summertime for Hall County children has led to more frequent trips to the emergency room than other times of the year. Since 2010, the peak of emergency room traffic trends toward August, with a decline through the rest of the year.
“The trends typically are higher in spring and summer because kids are not in school, and they’re out doing more activities that they could possibly be injured from,” said Kim Martin, coalition coordinator for Safe Kids Gainesville/Hall County. “It’s a seasonal trend … and child passenger safety is something that we focus on a lot because we see injuries from that all year round.”
Since 2010, the numbers in Hall County have also seen a dip, declining from peaks around 375 trips to the emergency room to around 200. Parents, Martin said, could be taking kids to other care for less serious injuries to avoid long waits.
“Some of our critical injuries that are flown from the scene that bypass Northeast Georgia (Medical Center) those totals are not included,” Martin added as a possible reason for the decrease.
Firefighters agree it becomes difficult to share such horrors with family members who don’t know the full toll of the job. That’s when their colleagues and volunteer chaplains are needed to help them bear the burden.
“(My family) will ask questions about it, but they don’t really know what goes on behind the scenes. It’s harder to let out your feelings to them,” Humphrys said. “I mean, you can talk to them about it, but they’re not going to understand it like if I talked to (other firefighters).”
Helping firefighters begins with being an open person, said the Rev. Matt Wethington, a volunteer chaplain. Lending an ear is the first step to helping first responders in difficult times.
“Counseling is a difficult dynamic, but really, No. 1 — listen,” he said. “Let them share their hurt, let them share their thoughts, let them share their frustrations, so forth and so on.”
It’s the victories on the job, Waldrop said, that make it all worth it. Several years back, he responded to a child injured when his toes were cut off in a lawn mower accident. Waldrop put the toes on ice, and the child was transported to the hospital.
It was years later, Waldrop said, when the child’s mother approached him, followed by a young man wearing braces on his legs after several surgeries.
“That’ll bring tears to your eyes,” Waldrop said.