The emergency responders quickly knew the gravity of the crash last Tuesday that killed all five children of a Chewelah, Wash., family. But for more than an hour, they feared there were even more victims they hadn’t yet found.
Some of the responding fire crews from Spokane County Fire District 4 and Fire District 9 worked to free the children from the upside-down, twisted mess of their family pickup, while others stopped traffic to avoid more damage at the crash site on U.S. Highway 395 near Hatch Road.
“We didn’t know if that was all or not,” District 4 Lt. Larry Helmer said. “We were concerned of maybe having to find more. Thank God it wasn’t too long after I took over as incident commander that we found out that we had all the victims accounted for.”
Although nearly a week has passed, the grisly recollections remain fresh in the minds of many of the first responders to one of the worst crashes in recent memory. The fire districts have provided counseling to their crews, many of whom are volunteers with their own young children.
When the first emergency workers arrived, they removed 55-year-old Clifford Helm from his pickup and 38-year-old Jeffrey Schrock from his truck. Others quickly worked with hydraulic jaws capable of opening sheets of steel like aluminum cans to carefully extricate the five children.
As a second MedStar helicopter waited on the ground on the chance that any of the children could be saved, a rising fear grew with each tense minute, said District 4 Deputy Chief Dave Phillips.
“In the vehicle, we were fairly certain that we knew what we had. We knew we had five kids,” Phillips said. “As each was confirmed deceased on the scene – as it continued to grow until there were five yellow sheets – that added the layers of emotion and stress. You could see people realize the immensity of the incident.”
Phillips arrived at the crash site just minutes after the accident, in which Helm’s northbound 1999 Ford pickup left the roadway, crossed the median and continued the wrong way in the southbound lanes before smashing into the front of the 1986 Ford F-250 pickup carrying Schrock and his five children: 12-year-old Carmen, 10-year-old Jana, 8-year-old Carinna, 5-year-old Jerryl and 2-year-old Craig.
“This one, you could just tell by the dispatcher that this was a critical call,” Phillips said. “One of the first things I did with the incident commander was to try to get a good count of how many people we were dealing with.”
After securing the crash scene and helping the medical examiner photograph and load the children’s bodies, Phillips and Helmer had emergency crews gather in a circle to talk about the crash and what they had seen. Phillips also let them know they would have a debriefing session with counselors to help cope with the range of emotions caused by witnessing the carnage.
“You do your job when you are at the scene,” said Helmer, a 50-year-old volunteer. “But afterwards, you think about it. I very much hope I never see my grandson under one of those blankets.”
Phillips, 48, said the worst part for him was watching the volunteers cope.
“Everybody identifies with it one way or the other. It puts them in the car or under the yellow sheet,” he said. “To be able to look in our responders’ eyes is what affects me.”
The Washington State Patrol continues to investigate the crash, but detectives still don’t know what caused Helm to drift into oncoming traffic. Investigators estimate Helm had 15 to 18 seconds to respond before crashing into Schrock’s pickup.
The investigation hinges on talking to Helm to determine what happened during that time. But Trooper Jeff Sevigney said investigators now will have to set up that interview through Helm’s attorney.