NC firefighters find strength in each other to overcome Florence grief

Wilmington's fire chief previously was chief in Lynchburg

WILMINGTON, N.C. – No matter how much you prepare for hurricanes, some tragedies are unavoidable. First responders in Wilmington, North Carolina, know that firsthand after a mother and her infant died right in front of them as they attempted to save them after a tree fell onto their home during Hurricane Florence.

It was a truly tragic incident that made national headlines. It happened on an eerie morning as the eyewall had just crossed over the coast and the rain and wind was picking back up. People on scene were devastated and as they prepare for the next hurricane season, that day has not been forgotten.

Wilmington firefighters broke their own rules during Hurricane Florence and never stopped responding to calls. The call to Mercer Avenue however was one they hoped they wouldn't have to do.

"I don't think anything they could have done would have saved the two people that died, and I think everything that they did saved the one person that they saved." Wilmington Fire Chief C.V. "Buddy" Martinette said.

Martinette said high winds knocked down the tree and then while rescuers attempted to lift the tree to free the victims trapped underneath, the high winds continued to shift the tree's load and made for a very difficult situation. It made it that much harder to save the dad, and impossible to save mom and her baby.

"I think if you were to go back and ask people does it still bother them, yeah you can obviously see it bothers me still," Martinette said.

That day when the rescue turned into a recovery, firefighters dropped to one knee to pray for the victims. Their faces said what words could not.

"Any time that firefighters go out and work tremendously hard for a positive outcome, only for it to be negative, it hurts," New Hanover County Fire Capt. Ben Bobzien said.

Bobzein was on other calls that day and did not respond to Mercer Avenue, but he helps lead the firefighter peer support group.

"What we're trying to do is shed a light on it and show them it's OK not to be OK," Bobzien said.

Every battle was an uphill one during the hurricane and many in the department are using the group to work things out.

"Knowing what those guys went through on scene on Mercer, it affects you, it will affect them the rest of their lives one way or another it's going to affect them," Bobzien said.

Unfortunately, this is all leadership can offer. Federal law prevents them from referring people for mental health care, something the fire chief says needs to change.

"I think it needs to be more aggressive, we need to be more aggressive in how we one provide self care, peer counseling, referred care, all those things we can do to make sure that they're just as healthy mentally as they are physically," Martinette said.

Chief Martinette is Lynchburg's former fire chief and he also worked in Oklahoma City duringn the bombing there so he's experienced trauma. He said training for mental health is just as important as training for other skills required in the fire service and that is how they will keep moving forward.

"We can send somebody for a physical fit for duty to see if they're able to be a firefighter and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but if we voluntarily refer them for a psychological counseling, even if we don't make it mandatory, we're not allowed to do that by federal laws," Martinette said.

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