A makeshift memorial has been erected at the southeast corner of Highway 115 and Norrish Road outside of Holtville in connection to the fatal two-vehicle traffic collision that claimed the lives of a total of 13 individuals traveling in a sport-utility vehicle. | JULIO MORALES PHOTO
HOLTVILLE — It wasn’t that long ago that whenever firefighters would leave the scene of a particularly shocking emergency, they were simply told to “suck it up” and move on, no matter how horrific the memories.
The mass casualty incident that unfolded the morning of Tuesday, March 2 at the intersection of Highway 115 and Norrish Road was unlike anything that Holtville Fire Department Chief Alex Silva said he has encountered in his nearly 30-year career with the department.
Nor was it something that he could easily forget.
“This is by far the most horrific scene I’ve ever seen in my life,” Silva said on Thursday, March 4. “I never expected something like this.”
Immediately after being the first to arrive at the site of the two-vehicle collision, Silva observed one fatality in the intersection south of the wreckage that resulted from a tractor-trailer striking an SUV loaded with 25 occupants, who authorities later revealed had illegally crossed the border east of Calexico through a breach in the fence.
As he walked in a circle around the collision, he was confronted by the sight of even more casualties strewn on the highway’s western shoulder, as well as individuals in varying states of injury and distress.
Of the SUV’s 25 occupants, 12 would be pronounced dead at the scene, while another would later succumb to their injuries at a local hospital. The rest were transferred to local and regional hospitals with serious and moderate injuries.
The totality of the incident has weighed on Silva’s mind since then, but not as much as the sight and sounds of a mother’s desperate pleas for first responders to attend to her lifeless daughter who she had cradled in her arms.
“The moment we had to separate the mother from the daughter was heartbreaking. I could still hear her the last two nights,” Silva said on Thursday, March 4. “Even last night I had issues sleeping.”
Medics from AMR ambulance services were first to arrive after Silva’s initial radio call to report the mass casualty incident. They were quickly followed by Holtville Fire Department personnel who had been with Silva minutes before at the scene of a separate report of a vehicle fire near the Hot Springs that later turned out to be related to the illegal vehicle incursion across the border.
The assembled first responders’ immediate task was to perform triage, where they assessed the extent of every individuals’ injuries so that arriving first responders knew who to provide care for first.
It took about three hours from when he had first arrived on scene alone in the department’s command vehicle to when the last of the deceased were removed from the site, yet that span of time felt like a mere 10 minutes on account of his complete focus and adrenaline rush, Silva said.
Afterward, he and department firefighters John Robles, a full-time employee, and reserve Matt Somera returned to the fire station with some doughnuts for a debriefing.
Because they, as well as AMR personnel, were among the first on scene, Robles and Somera had to approach every injured or deceased individual to assign them a color-coded category and number which determined the order in which patients were to be transported to hospitals.
“I was trying to see where they were at mentally,” Silva said.
Often, first responders may not experience the full range of human emotions that accompany a traumatic experience while they are responding to an emergency call, so signs of trouble may not appear until well after the incident has passed, he said.
For that reason, Silva said he reached out to county Behavioral Health Services to request the aid of a counselor, who on Wednesday, March 3, met with department personnel to help process any issues that may have arisen in the wake of the tragedy.
“This is going to be for weeks, maybe months,” Silva said regarding the counseling sessions. “I got to make sure that my guys are OK. I don’t want it to have an adverse effect on them, physically or mentally.”
The department had taken similar measures a few years back when personnel had to respond to a critical incident within the city that had involved a coworker who was involved in a vehicle collision.
That request for behavioral health services was also something of a departure from the longstanding attitudes and expectations about employees’ mental well-being that Silva said he had initially faced when he began his career with the department some 29 years ago.
“Back then it was just ‘suck it up and deal with it,’” the 56-year-old Holtville native said.
Prior to Tuesday’s incident, a vehicle collision within the city that had claimed the lives of the car’s five occupants was by far the worst that Silva said he had to respond to during his career.
On another occasion, he had a firefighter quit following the department’s response to two separate vehicle accidents in one night. The second incident involved a person who sustained severe injuries and later succumbed to them. A second firefighter developed a drinking problem shortly afterward but was able to receive help and recover, Silva said.
The profession’s increasing acknowledgment of and attentiveness to firefighters’ mental health is a welcome development for Holtville Firefighter Marco Flores, who joined the agency about two and a half years ago as an 18-year-old.
“It’s shifting in a good way to where you don’t have to just suck it up after every call,” Flores said. “It’s a different mentality now.”
Though he was not among the department’s personnel who were on scene during the March 2 mass casualty incident, Flores said he feels pride in the accomplishment of his peers whose actions undoubtedly helped saved lives.
“Whoever was saved was saved thanks to the quick action of Chief Silva arriving first on scene and ordering resources and recognizing the scale of the incident,” he said.
Flores said he is also well aware that on any given day he may have to respond to such a scene.
Indeed, he recently advised two reserve firefighters who just completed their probationary periods that as frequent as uneventful days may occur in Holtville, the potential is always there for quite the opposite.
“You could potentially have the worst thing you’ve ever seen in your life,” Flores said he told them.
He was also recently warned that because of the young age at which he started his career, his chances of experiencing an extremely traumatic event before retirement are even greater.
The same could be applied to a lot of the department’s personnel, of which only four of its 18 firefighters are over the age of 30.
Despite their relatively young age, Silva said he is confident the right resources and protocols are in place to help ensure the health and well-being of his crew and, by extension, the well-being of the community.
“That’s what I tell my guys,” Silva said. “We need to be sympathetic with the patients, but we also need to know that we have a job to do and they’re depending on us to do it.”