John Kass: The urge to help overides fear
There is the world of acts and there is the world of words. And America saw both the other day when the bombs went off at the finish of the Boston Marathon.
TV broadcasters with too much time to fill and too few facts descended, chattering, into speculation. And a few other media types couldn’t resist using the carnage to inflict partisan wounds.
As the dead and wounded were rushed to Boston hospitals, Americans reached for smartphones and computers. We’ve become a nation on keyboards, desperate to virtually search and connect even in chaos. Perhaps the act of typing makes us feel as if we can control the uncontrollable.
But that’s the world of words. The world of acts was much different.
You saw it on video, police, firefighters and paramedics running toward the blast. But also others, civilians, running toward the explosion, desperate to help.
The normal human reaction is to avoid danger. But there they were, first responders and civilians, running into it.
And every firefighter, paramedic and cop I talked to in Chicago Tuesday — the same men and women who’d be there to help if something bad happened here — said the same thing.
There are those who talk, and those who do. And those who do run toward trouble.
“Years ago, my very first week out of the academy, we get a call, shots fired on 71st Street,” said a veteran beat cop as his partner stood alongside, nodding. “We’re hauling ass, all adrenaline, and we pull up and the crowd’s running toward us.
“You can hear the pop-pop-pop and people are running away, screaming, hands up, mouths open, and we’re running toward them, running through them to get to the shooter. You know what I’m thinking?”
“I’m thinking: Am I (bleeping) crazy or what?
“But that’s what we do.”
Assistant Deputy Superintendent Howard Lodding runs the Chicago police academy — the Timothy J. O’Connor Education and Training Center, where future officers are trained.
“It may sound corny, but we’re there because we’re going to help people,” Lodding said.
Lodding said that training helps focus the instinct to help. And that training also involves thinking carefully, and clearly, as they move toward trouble.
For years, police, firefighters and paramedics have known that terrorists often lure first responders with one bomb, only to attack with a second bomb. There were two explosions in Boston.
“I feel that from day one we ingrain in them that they’re problem-solvers, and we do run to the problem,” Lodding said. “The problem can be a missing child, or someone who just lost their purse, all the way up to a bombing or shots fired. We’re going to run to that situation because we’ve got to help.
“I don’t think any of us are heroes, or are braver than the next person,” Lodding said. “But with the profession and what we go through and see day in and day out, and how we train them at the academy, that’s just in our nature.”
A friend of mine is a veteran paramedic. Unfortunately, he’s also a crazed Cubs fan, but I called him because I wanted to know:
What makes people run to danger, rather than avoid it?
“The media wants to make us out like heroes, but there were lots of civilians running toward the bombs, too,” he said. “We have more training. They don’t. I guess we’re all crazy.”
Adrenaline kicks in, and it can often consume the untrained responder or civilian. It consumes trained veterans, too, only they recognize the signs.
“You get that one dazed moment and the massive rush of adrenaline to go forward. You are supposed to be scanning, slow, scanning, looking, but you get tunnel vision. We know this,” said the paramedic.
Like so many other responders across America, he watched the videos from Boston repeatedly as they were broadcast, studying them. He told me that in most cases, the urge to help overwhelms the training.
“You see the video, the first responders who went there violated everything we’ve been taught about terrorism,” he said. “We’re told not to go in immediately. To wait for a secondary explosion. Technically speaking, you’re supposed to take a backward step. But who does?”
He explained it this way: You’re asleep and your wife elbows you awake, shouting that there’s a fire in the house across the street and there are kids inside. The prudent, reasonable thing to do is to call 911.
But something happens inside human beings.
“It’s like a switch gets kicked on. You’re not really thinking clearly. Your training says not to rush in when you hear that first bomb. There’s always that second terrorist explosion to kill off police, firefighters and paramedics.
“Now you’ve got cops and paramedics down, and the commander at the scene closes it down and won’t let anyone else in. That’s what the terrorist wants. Because people from the first blast are going to bleed out. An artery gets nicked, you have four or five minutes before they’re gone.”
And even with all that, they still rush in. No snark. No speculation. No words. Just acts.“Because that’s what we do,” he said. “That’s what we do.”
John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.