I remember it like it was yesterday, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tears. It was all so real, so painfully real. How could I ever forget.
The first call came to tell us that 445 Biltmore was on fire, this building, for those of you who don’t know, is directly connected to our hospital, our home, our place of safety. It wasn’t long before we got word that everyone was out and safe and there were no known injuries. Awesome! From an ERs standpoint we should be in the clear, now the firemen could get to work, put the fire out, and the long road to clean up could begin. However, in the end, that is not how the day played out.
A couple of hours passed and the call came again, but his time with a very different message. “We potentially have a code triage, there is an unknown number of people coming that way from the fire, get ready.” What? We thought every one was out? How is it possible that now can we could have a mass casualty incident? Well, you see, when everyone else is running out, there has to be someone who is running in, and on this day that heroic act ended in tragedy.
I didn’t personally know Captain Bowen, but so many of my friends did. We really are one big family, ER, EMS, Fire, Police…all working together and fighting the good fight. We see so many of the same things, deal with the same people, have the same dark and twisted sense of humor, and would give anyone in need the shirt off our backs. So, when one of us is hurt, especially while they are trying to protect the very ground we stand on, it shakes our foundation to its core.
I remember learning that all our patients would be firemen and watching as they started to roll them in, flushed, dirty, all covered in soot, with sweat dripping from their bodies. The smell of smoke filled the air and I swear I could feel the temperature start to rise. I was almost immediately overwhelmed with emotion. My job is hard, in fact it can sometimes be brutal, but I have never left work looking like this. I have never truly risked my own life to protect or help others. I have never worried that I may not have enough oxygen or struggled to breath as walked the halls of the ED. This is real, these guys are fighting for their lives, and the part that humbled me the most, they were fighting to protect me. To protect my patients, my co-workers, our families, they were fighting to protect all of us.
I remember pausing at the nurses desk on A-side for a moment and just looking around, surely this can not be real, and if it is, it has got to be closest thing to hell on earth I have ever witnessed. There were firemen everywhere, the halls lined with turnout gear. One man down, another close behind, many more hurt, hot, and literally trembling in fear. You want to talk about something taking you to your knees, this was it. Not one of them worried about themselves, and each of them wanting to know how their brothers were doing, and if everyone pulled through. The definition of true heroism at its finest.
We all already knew the answer, but it wasn’t our place to share, so we choked back tears and continued on, knowing their fears would be confirmed soon enough.
The faces, the tears, the words, and the pain of that day are with me still. The horror in the minute we lost him. These things are forever burnt in my mind. How do things like this happen, and why? I am convinced those answers are not for us to know.
His funeral was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. There was a mountain of firefighters, literally as far as the eye could see. It was incredible. The support and love from people all over, people who had never met Jeff before. People who came just because he would have done the same for them. The procession was incredible, the honor I witnessed was humbling, and the grace those guys showed, just days after they lost one of their very own, was simply breathtaking. The human will to fight can be so intense and beautiful.
Almost 3 years have passed and I still wear my Captain Bowen tag on my badge. It reminds me everyday of that drive, that pure beauty in loss and love for one another, and the incredible brotherhood that they have created. I feel honored to have cared for them, and to have been part of this…even if it was one of the worst days of our lives.
In honor of Captain Jeffrey Bowen