Tuesday 10 December 2019

'I'll never forget it. All these people, but nobody moving' - Berkeley fireman

Fire captain Rick Guzman: ‘Some of them were comforting and holding some of their friends that had just fallen’
Fire captain Rick Guzman: ‘Some of them were comforting and holding some of their friends that had just fallen’
Geraldine Gittens

Geraldine Gittens

One of the first responders at Berkeley fire department who rushed to the scene of the balcony collapse that killed six students a year ago remembers the incident as the worst he has dealt with in his 30-year career.

Fire captain Rick Guzman (57) was asleep at the fire house at the Berkeley Fire Department, seven blocks away, when the call came in.

"That got your attention right away. This isn't a type of call that we go on routinely," he said.

The crews believed that they would be dealing with an incident involving up to eight students and a balcony collapse from two or three storeys.

However, when they arrived outside apartment 405, it was clear that the incident was a great deal more serious.

"As we were going down the street, I could see all the cops, a lot of students around - basically a lot of commotion.

"You could see everything that had just happened.

"There were a lot of other students that had come downstairs - I think there were about 25 students in the apartment when the balcony collapsed - they ran downstairs to support their friends. It was pretty chaotic.

"Some of them were comforting and holding some of their friends that had just fallen.

"It was all these people lying still. Nobody was moving, which I'll probably never forget.

"We realised that it was 13 kids that had fallen off the balcony. We knew that we had to get these people out of there as soon as we could.

"Out of 13 people that fell, only one was walking, which surprised me. I even saw some of the police officers vomiting there just because of what they were visualising. There were so many kids involved."

The emergency crews set to work at what they deemed "a multi-casualty incident", which effectively puts local trauma centres on alert that they would be receiving numerous patients.

Students Eoghan Culligan, Lorcan Miller, Nick Schuster, Eimear Walsh, Olivia Burke and Olivia's Irish-American cousin Ashley Donohoe died and seven others were seriously injured.

For the traumatised emergency crews, the debriefing process would last for many months. Part of this healing process was the journey which some first responders made to Dublin last March to take part in the St Patrick's Day parade.

"To me, the request from some of the families, wanting to get together with us and just show a bit of appreciation and gratitude, was (important)," said Mr Guzman.

"However, we didn't have to deal with losing a son or a daughter.

"So I felt it was a good call for us to go there in number and show support for the families who were grieving."

Irish Independent

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