I joined the Marfa Volunteer Fire Department six months ago. So far, I have been to zero fires—the West Texas wildfire season doesn’t really pick up until spring—and two fire training courses. In the first class, we learned that fires like to lean uphill, and that it shouldn’t take more than twenty seconds to deploy and get into a fire shelter. In the second class, we learned to cut up cars.
Driving south on I-95 the day after Christmas a few years ago, my little brother and I saw a northbound car hit a Jersey barrier and flip, improbably high. I don’t remember seeing it land, either because I blocked that part out or because it had passed out of my field of vision by then. I remember my brother and I looking at each other: Should we stop? It felt terrible not to, inhumane, Bad Samaritanite—but what would we have done? Pulled off at the next exit, doubled back, gotten stuck in the traffic that had formed in the accident’s wake? I kept driving. Like most people, I have seen awful things on highways, and I have forgotten most of them. (My boyfriend is an EMT and assures me that although flipped cars look dramatic, they don’t always mean horrible death. It’s the head-on collisions that you should really be having nightmares about.)
Cars are terrible machines, is what I’m trying to say. They flip and skid and spin out of control; their brakes fail, or their tires fall off, or their gas pedals get stuck just when you happen to be pointed at the edge of a cliff. They are at once destructive and fragile. Their engines melt; their radiators explode. Or they fail in less dramatic ways: a tiny invisible part you’ve never heard of rusts or loosens or detaches, and suddenly there is an ominous sound that will cost $800 to fix.
Here is how you take a car apart with large, hydraulic-powered tools: Use jacks and struts and chocks to make sure the vehicle is stable before you begin; you wouldn’t want it to fall on anyone mid-destruction. Once it’s stabilized, shatter the windows and punch in the glass to get it out of your way. Use the spreaders to squeeze and crimp the windowframe, or pinch the doorframe until it crumples like a piece of paper. (“Be creative!” the instructors say.) Once you can see the hinges, wedge the Jaws of Life into the gap and snap them. Now your door is off. Clip the roof posts at the top and the bottom, being careful to avoid any airbags, and cut the seatbelt so it doesn’t fly back and smack you in the face. (Obviously you have one of these.) If the car is a hybrid, watch out: they’ve got electrical lines running down the length of the chassis. Firefighters hate hybrids. Lift off the roof, and now your car is a convertible! Oh, and you will probably have needed to use an axe to smash the front windshield, since these days they’re made of laminated glass. If your hypothetical patients are trapped in the front seat, you’ll have to snap the hood, then pinch and spread until you pry up the dash a good six inches from its normal position.
Sometimes when my boyfriend comes home after a particularly terrible EMS call, his hands smell like bleach, so I know there was blood (or something worse). And yet he seems strangely happy. Gleeful, almost. The trauma high is, it turns out, a well-documented phenomenon. Something about the thrill of being able-bodied, of being the one in the uniform and not the one strapped to the stretcher. And of being essential—the opposite feeling of sitting in your living room and looking at a bomb go off over and over again, watching the people who run away from it and the people who run toward it, and thinking about what kind you might turn out to be.Last month, a fertilizer plant exploded in the small, confusingly named town of West, Texas (Marfa is in West Texas; West is in Central Texas). Some of my friends back east wrote me emails, as if I had done something brave or dangerous, but the ten volunteer firefighters who died in West (along with four others) were 500 miles away from me, and I had spent most of that evening reading marathon bombing misinformation on Twitter.
The governor felt helpless, too, or said he did. “Listen, if there’s a better way to do this, we want to know about it,” Rick Perry told reporters on Friday, a day and a half after the explosion. Presumably, there is a better way; Texas has more workplace fatalities than any other state, even California, which has six million more people in its workforce. Not coincidentally, Texas was also named the best state to do business in for seven years running by CEO Magazine—“in no small part because of its regulatory climate,” bragged conservative think tank Club for Growth.
So either an act of God, or an act of business-friendly, regulation-lite government. Either would be larger and harder to personify than the Boston bombing—no droopy-eyed teenage perpetrators to splash across the screen—and so the West explosion was treated as something of an afterthought, the week’s second-place tragedy.
But when it did get its moment on TV, often the face of the tragedy was 31-year-old West EMT Bryce Reed, one of the first responders on the scene. In the numerous, highly emotional interviews Reed gave in the days after the blast, he talked about how his house had been destroyed in the blast, how he’d witnessed “dozens” of dead bodies littering the ground near the fertilizer plant. With expressive eyebrows and a prominent FIRE/RESCUE baseball cap, Reed, telegenic and vulnerable and eager to talk, was the star of the show.
On April 25, he appeared in a videotaped eulogy for Cyrus Reed, a fellow EMT who was killed by the blast. “My brother would disagree, but I firmly believe that all privy to this incident can attest that my brother, and all those who lay with him, are heroes now and forever,” Bryce Reed said. “I would like you all to learn from my brother.”
Reed has had, to put it simply, a very bad month. Two days after the blast, he lost his job with West Emergency Medical Services. Around the same time, his Facebook posts became increasingly frantic, full of all-caps exhortations and exclamation points. His wife left him. Residents of West were starting to complain that Reed was profiting from the tragedy, either by making money from all those interviews with major media outlets (which he denies), or at least through all the attention he was getting. And why did he keep referring to Cyrus Reed as “brother” when the two men weren’t related at all? “I want people to know they are not brothers, and he is not part of our family,” Cyrus Reed’s sister, Sarah, told the media. Her family had gone through Cyrus’s cell phone and computer records, and decided the two men weren’t as close as Reed was claiming. Sarah Reed said her family felt “fooled” by Reed. And then, in mid-May, Texas authorities charged Reed with possessing the components of a pipe bomb (“canisters that included a lighter, a digital scale, a plastic spoon and ‘several pounds of chemical powders’ in a separate bag”).
A week after his arrest, Reed is still in custody on federal firearms charges (he had an unregistered gun, too). Texas authorities are being squirrely; they’ve said they have no evidence linking Reed to the blast, but they also opened a criminal investigation into the explosion just a few hours after they brought charges against him. For his part, Reed expressed his shock and hurt on—where else?—his public Facebook page (which he’s since taken a break from):
I lost a lot in this and there have been INCREDIBLY kind people who are taking donations so I can get a HOME AND LIFE back, however, never would I PROFIT from anyones death. I loved and still love Cyrus A. Reed, and he loved me. I did and will do what I thought was right. Was I emotionally devistated? Hell yes I was. Have your brother die, your town explode, your crew be emotionally wrecked, and in the midst of it have your wife leave you because you are lost in your own emotions: ALL IN THE SAME WEEK, and see how you fare. People I am doing my BEST to hold myself together, but please for the love of God quit picking me apart. I have to bury yet ANOTHER friend tomorrow. God Bless.
Judging from the comments on various news stories, plenty of people think the charges against Reed are trumped up. (What self-respecting Texan doesn’t have an unregistered gun and several pounds of chemical powders lying around the garage?) But, guilty or not, people seem to feel…funny about him. “[Reed] gave lengthy interviews to reporters, while other emergency responders didn’t want to talk,” the Daily Mail sniffed, and the implication is clear: the real good guys were too stoic or humble to talk.
Perhaps it’s natural to want our heroes to be internally consistent. If they perform a heroic act, they should do so with pure hearts, and behave nobly in the aftermath. They should receive our praise with a bowed head and a shy smile. But if instead our hero is a bit of a drama queen, if he likes to hear himself proclaimed courageous on primetime TV, if he wants to make sure we see his own pain, then that’s distasteful at best, criminal at worst. Otherwise, why would the New York Times have used seven of the eighteen paragraphs of a story ostensibly about bomb-making charges to instead minutely detail Reed’s public emoting?
If West is anything like Marfa, its emergency-services personnel get paid ridiculously low wages. Being a medic is a working-class job that doesn’t require a college degree. “We’re trauma janitors,” my boyfriend is known to say after particularly bloody/vomit-y/shitty calls. (But we generally don’t like to hear our heroes talk about money, either.) So no one begrudges them most of the job perks: a bit of public glory, a handshake in the grocery store, a free beer on Friday night. But the emotional benefits—a sense of importance, an inside view of human extremity, the bizarre intimacy of seeing a stranger’s skull shine underneath a flap of skin—are more complicated. Because your trauma high is always someone else’s trauma.
On the last night of our course, we firefighter trainees put on our bunker gear and stood in a field as our instructors set real things on fire—a strange metal tree, a propane tank, a beat-up old Lincoln—which we then tried to extinguish. The event had been advertised in the local paper, so families came out to watch. There were bleachers, and a taco truck.
As far as I can tell, most of the work of a small-town Texas fire department consists of filling out forms, testing hydrants, giving stickers to second graders, rolling up hoses, putting old pumps on new trucks, and learning how to refill tanks using water from a stock trough. Actual fires are rare, and when they do happen—when something in a dumpster ignites, or when a hay bale catches, or when lightning strikes a patch of freeze-dried grass and someone’s ranch is suddenly burning—putting them out is business, not pleasure.
Which is a shame, because controlled fire is one of the best-ever things for looking at. Maybe our brain stems are wired for it in some deep evolutionary way, or maybe a flame is just a pretty sight to see, flapping in the air like a flag, showing you the shape of the wind. Ten feet tall? Twenty? I don’t remember. I just wanted them to be bigger. When we switched to the propane tank, it was my turn at the front of the hose. “Now, you know you can’t run away,” said our line’s designated instructor/babysitter. He slid his arm around my waist and gripped my hip to hold me in place. (He may have been nervous because at last year’s live fire training, a nozzle malfunctioned and flames breached the hose’s water wall. No one got hurt, but a trainer’s mustache was significantly singed.)
If the hoses weren’t so loud, I would’ve told him that I wasn’t going to run anywhere. I loved that fake fire, and I loved that it was my job to do something about it. Given a real emergency, an unchecked flame, a smashed-up car, a sinister government, who knows what I would do? I feel so helpless so much of the time. It’s a bad habit, I suppose, brought on by too-easy access to too many tragedies, a lack of tangible skills, and a daily insulation from real disaster. But now, at least, I can tell you how good it feels to take something frightening and tear its doors from its hinges, rip its roof off, expose its insides to the sky.
Rumpus original art by Annie Daly.