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MailTribune.com
  • Their injuries are invisible

    Emergency responders begin process of coping with aftermath of tragedy
  • Medford Fire-Rescue Chief Dave Bierwiler arrived at 1027 W. 10th St. Monday morning just as the sixth victim was being carried from the still-smoldering home.
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      Agencies that responded to the 10th Street tragedy Monday:
      • Mercy Flights


      • Medford Fire-Rescue


      • Medford Police Department
      • Jackson County Fire District No. 3
      • Jackson County Fire District No. 5
      • Jacksonville Fire Department
      • Ashland Fire & Rescue
      • Medford Rogue Valley International Airport Fire Department
      • Oregon Department of Forestry


      (Correction: Mercy Flights was inadvertently omitted from the original list, but has been added to this version.)
  • Medford Fire-Rescue Chief Dave Bierwiler arrived at 1027 W. 10th St. Monday morning just as the sixth victim was being carried from the still-smoldering home.
    The initial call was for a structure fire. Responders are always prepared that someone might be trapped inside, but no one could have anticipated the horrific scene that awaited them in the modest home.
    Bierwiler has been "practicing street medicine for 40 years," he said. Monday's call to the west Medford neighborhood ranks as one of the top for being "emotionally traumatic and high tension," he said.
    Dozens of men and women from local police and fire departments scrambled across the front lawn, each trained responder desperately trying to save the lives of four young children and two adults, he said.
    "We brought an emergency room to each one of the people not breathing," Bierwiler said.
    Rescue personnel carried out victim after victim, pulled aside bloody clothing, pumped on tiny chests and poured their breath into little smoke-filled lungs.
    "There is nothing more heart-wrenching than doing CPR on a child the age of your child, especially when you're pretty sure they're not going to survive," Bierwiler said.
    There would be only one survivor that day. The resuscitation efforts to save 30-year-old Tabasha Paige-Criado and her four children, Elijah, 7, Isaac, 6, Andrew, 5, and Aurora, 2, were unsuccessful. Jordan Criado, 51, remains unresponsive and on a mechanical ventilator at Rogue Valley Medical Center, suspected of stabbing his family members and setting their home on fire.
    As Medford police detectives continue to investigate the largest homicide case in Jackson County's modern history, agency chaplains are making rounds to support the responders. Agency leaders are keeping a close eye on their crew members, watching for signs of what is known as "critical incident stress."
    People who voluntarily place themselves in harm's way to save others are brave. But they are also human, said Anne Kellogg, a therapist who specializes in working with emergency services personnel.
    The sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches these men and women experienced that day are fully imprinted on their brains. It impacts their psyches and can adversely affect their emotional, mental and physical health if not properly processed, she said.
    "Their injuries are invisible," she said. "They look fine, and they are fine, in many ways."
    But it will take time, space and understanding for them to recover from this kind of trauma, she added.
    "When you get a call, you are braced for what you expect you're going to find," Kellogg said. "But when it turns into something else, something like this, there is a greater vulnerability."
    About 50 men and women from area fire departments and 20 to 25 Medford police officers responded Monday, said police Lt. Bob Hansen.
    The vital work to help those who risk their lives serving others began Monday afternoon with a "defusing" session, said Bierwiler.
    During the crisis, responders rely upon their training to perform their duties, blocking their emotions to help maintain focus. But this can work against them afterward — when they inevitably relive the trauma, said Hansen.
    Members of the crew, in order of their arrival, discuss what they did and how they did it. Their minds, so narrowly focused on their specific tasks during the crisis, can now begin to process their feelings and their experience from a broader group perspective, Bierwiler said.
    "We're trying to literally defuse an emotional bomb," Bierwiler said. "It starts to make sense. It helps them process it better."
    "We go on these calls all the time," said Justin Bates, training chief for Medford Fire-Rescue. "It starts as a routine call, smoke in a building."
    Searching the smoke-filled house on 10th Street, crews soon discovered one bloody victim, then another, and another. Well before the sixth victim was removed from the residence, "it was pretty obvious to firefighters this was more than just an accidental fire," Bates said.
    "That's when it shifts to another level," he said. "We have to block some of it out. But we're like everybody else. We have questions. This seems like such a senseless act. This was a very tragic, major event."
    After Monday's defusing, Bierwiler said everyone who responded to the tragedy was told to take the rest of the day off.
    Most were back to work the next day, and police, firefighters, ambulance crews and dispatchers had another chance to participate in a formal debriefing Wednesday. Participation was voluntary, Bierwiler said.
    "Every person deals with stress in a different way," he said, adding that during such sessions, many talk, others choose only to listen, and some opt not to attend.
    Hansen was also on the front lawn on Monday. And back Tuesday as police detectives searched the house and gathered evidence. In his 29 years with MPD, this is one of the worst cases Hansen can remember.
    Standing next to a steadily growing memorial of stuffed animals, candles and flowers cordoned off with orange traffic cones and police tape, Hansen discussed the welfare of his officers.
    Many have children the ages of the victims, he said.
    "It hits a little more at home," Hansen said.
    Police had responded to the Criados' home earlier that day. Jordan Criado called in a missing person's report on his wife at 5:10 a.m., he said. After Paige-Criado heard police were searching for her through friends, she called the department around 7:30 a.m. to say she was returning home. A surveillance tape from the nearby Minute Market convenience store shows Paige-Criado smiling and waving as a female officer arrives to give her a lift home. Once there, the female officer spoke with both Paige-Criado and Criado, Hansen said.
    "She said she'd been out with friends," he said. "And she was in no fear."
    There was nothing either said that could possibly have foreshadowed the five murders, Hansen said, adding the female officer is doing well.
    "She's doing fine," Hansen said. "She's strong."
    But Hansen knows stress can show up days, weeks or even months or years after an event. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Hansen's demeanor was calm. His gaze was steady and his voice was firm. Moments later, while discussing the reality of human vulnerability, the compounding effect of these traumas became momentarily evident.
    Hansen eyes filled with tears and his words briefly faltered as he remembered answering another tragic call a few years ago. A toddler had drowned, he said.
    Hansen shook his head and reflexively apologized for exhibiting even a fleeting glimpse of raw emotion. While he admitted knowing there is neither shame nor weakness in expressing a lingering sorrow at the death of a beloved child, officers are much more comfortable keeping their game face on, or even engaging in gallows humor to displace their stress, he said.
    "People can put us almost on a pedestal," he said. "Then if they see us cry, they want to know what's wrong with us."
    The sights, sounds or smells from a recent incident can trigger a flood of memories of previous traumas, Kellogg said. Because emergency responders are repeatedly placed in crisis, their jobs can be literally "mind-blowing" and "soul-stealing," Kellogg said.
    The men and women called to perform these services for their communities speak of the huge rewards they feel when things go right. But the stresses of the job can be both a "blessing and a curse," she said.
    "Yes, they do amazing work," Kellogg said. "And they are human."
    In a letter to the Mail Tribune, Deputy Chief Tim Doney said he saw the worst that humanity can offer on Monday. But he also saw the very best — police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, emergency room personnel and others stepping "up to the plate and serving the public, sometimes at extreme price," he wrote.
    "On Monday as Chief George and I arrived on the scene on West 10th Street, it looked like something I would expect to see at a plane crash," Doney wrote. "I saw dozens of first responders, firefighters, police officers and EMTs, all performing life-saving efforts. I saw uniformed men and women, young employees and old, unified in their efforts of trying to save the lives of six people on the front yard while the house which sat nearby was still ablaze and smoking. I saw humanity take over and extraordinary efforts being made to save those six people."
    Doney also wrote he had seen many gruesome crime scenes in the past 23 years — including a case of extreme dismemberment.
    "But none compared to what was experienced on West 10th Street," he wrote. "This all hits close to home as I spent about seven years of my childhood growing up around the corner on South Orange Street and actually playing at the house next door to the fire."
    Doney said he saw the impact on his colleagues as well.
    "The following day, I had the chance to talk to some of the involved police officers, who still had pain on their faces. You could tell the memories and all their efforts were etched in their minds. Strong men and women that were shaken to their core," Doney wrote.
    Bierwiler said remaining connected to the compassionate side of one's nature makes for better public servants. But it can be difficult for emergency responders to discuss the horrors they witness with anyone — including their family members, he said.
    "They're trying not to contaminate the family," he said. "But if we aren't careful, we can build a culture where we're only talking to ourselves. And that's not good."
    While his crews are processing their emotions, Bierwiler urges them to eat right, exercise and rest.
    Kellogg agrees that crying, sweating and drinking plenty of water are key to physical recovery. Severe stress can dump massive amounts of potentially toxic chemicals into one's bloodstream. The faster these substances are processed out of the body, the better for the individual, she said.
    Failure to find adequate coping mechanisms can result in substance abuse, issues with weight, diabetes and a host of physical and psychological ills, Kellogg said.
    In a situation as horrific as the murder of a family, it is not only the emergency responders who experience stress, Hansen said.
    "The whole neighborhood is feeling it," he said.
    A neighbor with a tear-swollen face carefully placed her rosary at the memorial outside the home Tuesday morning. The grandmother of eight said her most fervent hope was that the children didn't witness one another's murders.
    "I've been praying on this rosary since it happened," said Cindy McJunkin, 54. "Nothing like this has ever happened here. It just breaks my heart. It's just like a horror movie."
    A little farther down the street, a little girl announced to a passerby that "the kids died. The four kids. And the mommy, too. The daddy killed them." Her adult companion quickly shushed her.
    At the Children's Advocacy Center, just up the street, Executive Director Marlene Mish and her staff also have been suffering the effects of "secondary trauma," she said.
    The agency deals with children who have been physically and sexually abused on a daily basis. Monday's tragedy is a staggering reminder that there is still so much work to be done to protect the community's children, she said.
    "I think the whole city is in a state of trauma," Mish said, adding the murders are a "tangible reminder that this could happen to anyone and it will hurt everyone."
    Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.
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