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For Sandy Hook's First Responders, Trauma Lingers With Painful Reminders

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For Sandy Hook's First Responders, Trauma Lingers With Painful Reminders

For Sandy Hook's First Responders, Trauma Lingers With Painful Reminders

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The first responders at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, are now trying to cope with what they saw. They're also struggling with this tragic fact: while they're trained to save lives, they arrived to find Friday's shooting victims beyond help. NPR's David Schaper has that story from Newtown.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Volunteer firefighter Chip Carpenter stands on the corner in front of the Sandy Hook firehouse as a huge 18-wheeler pulls out from the elementary school behind him. It's carrying desks, computers and books from the Sandy Hook School to one in nearby Monroe, where Sandy Hook students will go after the winter break. For Carpenter, this mundane duty of directing traffic is also a bit surreal. Across the street, there's a huge roadside memorial. Hundreds of people stream by here each day to pay their respects to the victims, and many to also thank the officers and firefighters posted out front. Carpenter says the tight-knit group of Sandy Hook first responders, many of them volunteers, are exhausted and working long hours.

CHIP CARPENTER: We're holding up the best that we can. I mean, it's going to be a very long process. We come, we do our job. We have our good moments. As for myself, I'm having a lot of tough moments.

SCHAPER: Among them, the passing of a funeral procession moments earlier, carrying one of the 6-year-old shooting victims. Carpenter teared up as the motorcade went by.

CARPENTER: That was probably one of the toughest moments I've had since the incident. That was - I just didn't expect it to be that way.

SCHAPER: Carpenter arrived in the hectic aftermath of Friday's deadly shooting ready to employ his years of training but...

CARPENTER: It was all done. There was no injuries that we can take care of. There was nobody that we can transport to the hospital. It's just the helplessness of unable to do anything.

SCHAPER: Standing with Carpenter when that funeral procession went by is Lee Shaw, a police and fire chaplain from Napa, California, who was counseling the Sandy Hook first responders.

LEE SHAW: They're trained to save lives. They're trained to help, provide assistance, and that's their whole life. And then for them to go in and not be able to do anything is very, very difficult for them. Very difficult.

SCHAPER: As a result, Shaw says some of the police officers, firefighters and EMTs are struggling with feelings of anger, guilt, grief and frustration.

SHAW: You can't fix them. You can't go in and get inside their heart and take care of things for them. But you can encourage them. You can by your presence. We have - chaplains, most of us, we call it a ministry of presence. By - just by being there can be a great assistance to them.

SCHAPER: The Sandy Hook first responders are getting an outpouring of support for many in the community, from a standing ovation at Sunday night's memorial service to people giving hugs and plates of cookies at the firehouse. They're also getting the support of their colleagues from around the country. Bruno Castanheira is one of three EMTs who drove up from Newark, New Jersey.

BRUNO CASTANHEIRA: Just to pay our respects.

SCHAPER: Castanheira says, in his profession, it's always difficult to respond to the shootings of children.

CASTANHEIRA: It will hit you hard, and there's nothing, nothing out there from schooling, from practice that will prepare you for something like this.

SCHAPER: Castanheira and his colleagues say they, too, know what it feels like to arrive on the scene of a tragedy too late.

CASTANHEIRA: One word: helpless.


CASTANHEIRA: You start second guessing yourself sometimes and you think about maybe if I would have taken this turn instead of that turn or maybe if I was here 30 minute - 30 seconds earlier, maybe we could've saved at least one child. And it's - you just feel helpless.

SCHAPER: On their way up the hill in Newtown to visit the Sandy Hook fire station, these three Jersey EMTs said that they still don't know exactly what they'll say to the Sandy Hook first responders other than just to let them know that they're here for them and they're family. David Schaper, NPR News in Newtown, Connecticut.

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