• A second look at PTSD

    by Tom McMasters-Stone

    As part of my recovery, examining my history, and hanging with lots of veterans over the last year, the issue has arisen on whether or not I may have Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome from my 30 years in the fire service.

    It is not unusual for these vets to ask me what the worst situation I encountered during my career. I pretty much have seen it all, although I never got the chance to deliver a baby.

    I was there for the birth of three of my four children, and while I was not there for the birth of my daughter Erin, I do try to re-visit the hangar where she was put together as often as possible!

    The worst? Hmmm.

    One afternoon, we were dispatched to a townhouse fire, with a report of two kids trapped.

    It was a couple of miles from the station, but we could see some black smoke soon after we left the station.

    We pulled up to find a working fire on the first floor of the middle townhouse in a five-unit complex. We pulled into the driveway and positioned just past the unit, and began to deploy our hoses. I was assigned to go check out the rear of the building. At that time, not every firefighter had radios, and I did not.

    When I got back there, I discovered that a civilian had placed an extension ladder up to one of the bedroom windows, so up I went.

    The window was open, as was the bedroom door. The fire was starting up the stairs, but had not reached the second floor yet. I was at the top of the “chimney” that was created by the open window and the fire below, but I still had a little visibility.

    In between breaths, I heard one of the kids moan from inside, so I hopped in and began my search. I could not close the bedroom door because of things in the way.

    It was as hot as I have ever been. I started in the closet. Nothing. I swept under the bed. Nothing. I went back to the window, where the civilian had a garden hose, and he quickly cooled me off, a very welcome occurrence.

    I dropped to my knees, and quickly swept the floor, still hearing moans, but unable to pinpoint them in the noise of the fire, and the sounds coming from the attack crew below.

    I would be lying if I said that thoughts of my two boys at home were not on my mind, but I love kids in general.

    I found one of the boys on the floor, but he was clearly gone, so I left him, and continued looking. The moans were still coming, but less frequently.
    There was only one last place to look, and I knew the other boy had to be there — between the bed and the wall. You can look at a bed, see it snugly against the wall, and yet somehow in a fire, kids manage to sometimes take refuge there in a fire.

    I grabbed the second boy by the arm, and pulled him out, and hugged him to my chest. He tried to breathe, but I put my glove over his mouth during the three steps to the window, so he would not breathe in the superheated gases.

    At the window, I handed him off to waiting arms, and leaned on the windowsill. I thought I still had enough time to get the other child, so I turned to get him. As I did so, I was hit with the welcome cooling of the first attack line, coming to find me. One of my partners had reported me up there. Instead, I left the place in the hands of the rest of the Killer Bees of B-Shift, climbed out the window, and found a shady spot on the tailboard of an engine.

    As firefighters, some days we are not worth what they pay us, but on most days we are, and on other days we are really, really worth it.

    That day, I fell short. There was nothing I could have done differently, it was a textbook search, but I fell short. I did break a couple of rules by going into a building above a fire without a hoseline, but you know me and rules — I consider them “guidelines”.

    I called the hospital the next morning to check on the boy. He was dead.

    Yeah, I guess I should probably look further into this PTSD thing…

    • So sad Tom. I think you work hard everyday because you are preparing always for the worse case scenario. I am so glad you did your job for 30 years. Now is the time to help yourself and start recovery. PTSD is something worth working through. Thank you for your service.

      • Martha K.

      • September 23, 2012 at 12:25 pm
      • Reply

      This is why we love firefighters. We surely don’t have enough support for these vets that go to battle everyday.

    • You need to cut yourself some slack, Tom. You are your own worst critic.

    • I have to put you up in the 1% because 99% of us would not have gone through that window in the first place and that has a PTSD of it’s own but that’s a different story. I have suspected for some time that you may be suffering some stress related problems from reading the things you write about. Sometimes when I read between the lines of your columns I can sense some of the pain within. But, that’s what makes you who you are and I wouldn’t change a thing about you if I could.
      Live long and prosper.

      • Jesse

      • September 26, 2012 at 7:32 pm
      • Reply


      I am glad you made it out alive to tell the tale. You did everything right. The fire was wrong. The fire was bad. The fire took the air away. You didn’t do anything wrong.
      I confess to having a weird similar nagging emotion. Mine is that my twin died. According to the birth records, she was bigger and should have made it. I have often felt it should have been me. Lately, I accept that I got to live and tell the tale. I am glad we are here. Love, Jesse

      • Tom

      • September 27, 2012 at 12:05 pm
      • Reply

      Wow. I am in tears as I read your comments. Thank you my friends…

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