Martinez-Columbia Fire Rescue Chaplain Richard Thigpen says there came a day six years ago when something had to be done.
After the April 20, 1999, school shootings in Columbine, Colo., and a local drowning soon after, Thigpen said he realized Martinez-Columbia needed a team of chaplains who could respond to the emotional toll victims, families and first responders take at the scene of fires and other tragedies.
Since then, Thigpen created a Critical Incident Support Team of 22 male and female ministers representing eight denominations.
As first responders, Martinez-Columbia answers calls not only to fires but also wrecks, suicides, drownings and many other emergency situations. Typically, in cases of fatalities or the destruction of a home, Thigpen or another volunteer chaplain is called upon to listen and offer spiritual guidance to the mourning.
Thigpen said that as he counsels others in times of loss, he, too, receives healing. Four years ago, his wife died after a long battle with Crohn's disease.
"After I lost my wife, I went to a grief class for a month," Thigpen said. "But when I sit down and (counsel), that's been the biggest healing for me."
Deaths of children are typically the hardest for families and first responders to handle, Thigpen said.
Columbia County Emergency Services director Pam Tucker said the team is an asset to the county.
"The disaster psychology and the spiritual assistance they offer people is tremendous, especially right after something happens," she said, adding that the mental and spiritual healing is just as important as saving lives.
Volunteer chaplains the Revs. Greg Porterfield, the lead minister of Wesley United Methodist Church in Evans, and Cynthia Taylor, of the Church of the Holy Comforter in Martinez, say calls for help come at all times.
"It's not a predictive kind of thing. There is not a cycle to it," Porterfield said.
Taylor said she keeps a fire helmet, boots and jacket in the trunk of her car at all times.
"You don't know when you are going to get called and to what scene you are going to be called," she said. Taylor ministered to the recovery teams at St. Paul Chapel near ground zero nine months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
To Porterfield, the call that sticks with him the most was a suicide, he said. Often, he said, he's found the love people bury deep down for others isn't let out until a time of crisis.
Taylor's first call lingers in her mind.
"The very first call I took was the death of a child," Taylor said. "And that, in particular, hit too close to home for a lot of people."
At that scene, while another minister counseled the distraught family, Taylor said she tended to the firefighters who saw their own children as victims. Taylor said the firefighters and other emergency workers also can take the loss of life they encounter personally.
"They deeply, deeply care, and when someone is injured in a fire or when someone dies, it's personal," she said.
At the scene of a tragedy, often the victims and families aren't the only ones who suffer emotionally, Thigpen said.
"Really, that's what this team is about, to be with not just the families, but the emergency personnel, too," Thigpen said. Much of their work involves counseling firefighters in times of loss within their family.
Often, care continues in the weeks that follow a traumatic event, if needed, he said.
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