WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Fire officials say the lone survivor on an elite Arizona firefighting crew was on a hilltop serving as a “lookout,” and was in charge of relaying key information to his colleagues.
Brendan McDonough was in his third season with the 20-member, Prescott-based firefighting unit.
Wade Ward, spokesman for city of Prescott, said McDonough “did exactly what he was supposed to” on that fateful afternoon two days ago.
He said McDonough notified the other Hotshots that the weather was changing rapidly and that the fire had switched direction because of the wind. McDonough also told his fellow crew members that he was leaving the immediate area to get to a “safety zone.”
But for many, being the lone survivor of a tragedy brings a flood of guilt.
As CBS 2’s Lou Young reported Tuesday, the firefighters died knowing the risk, but the lone survivor is carrying a weight no man ever bargains for.
“He feels terribly and we all feel terribly and unfortunately we have very few words that express that kind of sorrow,” Prescott, Ariz. fire chief Ben Fraijo said.
Psychiatrists said human nature makes the burden of survival especially difficult in this instance.
“I would say that he’s very much at risk,” psychiatrist Dr. Juliet Lesser told CBS 2’s Young. “He’s lost friends, he’s lost his team. The expertise that he put his trust in is gone. It didn’t work, it didn’t function.”
Jeff Cool, who survived the FDNY’s “Black Sunday” disaster in the Bronx, knows that pain all too well. He lost three friends, his health and his ability to do the job he loves in that January 2005 blaze.
“The scars are woven deep in my heart and in my mind,” Cool told Young.
He said the guilt of survival still haunts him.
“There’s good days, there’s bad days…even nine years later,” Cool told Young.
Experts said survivor’s guilt is very real and is a subset of post-traumatic stress disorder. Experts said first responders are especially vulnerable to that guilt.
Cool said he resisted counseling in the first years after Black Sunday at tremendous cost.
“It was a long struggle. I was a nasty, nasty person,” Cool told Young. “I was hurtin’ and you know what? There’s times that I still hurt…You got to face it head-on because if not, it is a cancer that’s going to eat you up and it’s going to destroy you.”
Experts said that feeling is common in this type of situation.
“There’s a risk of becoming benumbed after something like this because the bottom has just come out of your world,” Lesser said.
Since surviving the Black Sunday fire eight years ago, Cool has dedicated himself to promoting firefighter safety and frequent counselling. He said it’s the best way he knows to honor the memories of his three fallen friends.
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