East Lyme — For a short time after Friday morning's fatal tanker truck accident, emergency officials allowed vehicles onto the Exit 75 entrance ramp to Interstate 95 north. A slow parade of wide-eyed rubberneckers gaped at the scene to their left, a triple-fatal accident involving a tanker truck that had lost control and jumped the center median, hurtling into oncoming traffic.
Onlookers saw an incomprehensible scene: the debris, crushed cars and cabs ripped from trailers.
But they were at a distance. Emergency officials, the first responders, came upon the disaster and got in the middle of it.
State police Lt. Louis J. Fusaro, Jr., commanding officer of Troop E in Montville, made an extra call Friday morning: to the Public Safety Employee Assistance Program for those emergency personnel who may have needed counseling or other assistance, either on the scene or in the coming days and weeks following the crash.
“There were agencies out there, unlike police and even fire to some extent, that probably don't see that as often as we do, and I thought it was a good idea if we had someone to offer assistance to people if they needed it,” Fusaro said.
Fusaro said he didn't know whether any emergency responders used the services, and the EAP representatives declined, through Fusaro, to speak to the media. There were also representatives from an early intervention program, a pilot program run through the state police, on hand.
Sgt. Richard Crooks, the East Lyme resident state trooper, arrived at the scene between 15 minutes and a half hour after the accident. Firefighters were spraying foam on the fuel spill, and Crooks said his first thought, as always, was to determine what needed to be done.
“I've seen everything that you can possibly imagine,” Crooks said. “It's gruesome sometimes, but you have a job to do, and you're the person that the public turns to, to make things right and stabilize situations like this; and you have to be able to function when confronted with situations like this.”
Crooks said responders “detach” until the situation is taken care of.
“I think my family and my wife end up dealing with things like this, too, because you go home, and you talk to your family and work things out,” Crooks said.
Crooks said a state trooper from Troop E in Westbrook was first on the scene. The other earliest responders came from the Flanders Fire Department, located about a half mile from where the accident occurred.
The trooper could not be reached on Saturday, and the fire department's first responders were in New York for a wedding, according to Jim Levandoski, deputy fire chief.
Levandoski said a nearly 40-year fire veteran told him Friday that the accident was among the 10 biggest incidents in his career.
“There were a lot of issues occurring all at once: fatalities, massive fuel spill, you had this massive response that this area doesn't normally get,” Levandoski said. “There were a lot of issues going on (Friday), a lot of new issues even for us.”
Levandoski said it is difficult to tell whether an accident like Friday's will affect the responders. In his 25 years, he said, he felt a brief bout of post-traumatic stress disorder after one accident: a fatal crash on Christmas Eve in 1992 in which six men were killed. After the debriefing a few days later, he said, he was fine.
“Even to this day, I can't tell you why that particular accident had an effect on me,” Levandoski said. “So I can't tell you whether this crash affected anybody. Only that person will know whether they were affected. ... I don't know why your brain keys in on one more than the other.”
Richard Morris, East Lyme's fire marshal, was one of the first four people on the scene. He said the earliest responders started pairing off, assessing the situation, calling for more ambulances, equipment and dispatchers, and establishing communications and a command channel.
Morris said he has 39 years of experience. Responders find ways to cope, he said, whether formally through the Employee Assistance Program or by talking with their peers. Morris said there was a lot of downtime for responders to pair off and talk at the scene during the day on Friday.
“One way or another they talk out these issues, whether back at the fire station or the police department amongst their peers,” Morris said. “They all discuss these issues one way or the other, to relieve that stress inside and relieve those emotions.”
Said Fusaro, from Troop E: “We see a lot of things that the average person doesn't get to see in a lifetime. And we see it all too often.”
Staff writer Julie Wernau contributed to this report