Wrong Way Tragedy: Supporting First Responders

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Harrison EMS Chief Joe Bilotto is part of the state-wide crisis team that supports emergency workers.
Harrison EMS Chief Joe Bilotto is part of the state-wide crisis team that supports emergency workers.

This story is part of a series called Wrong Way Tragedy, about the lasting impacts of the fatal drunken driving accident that claimed eight lives on the Taconic State Parkway on July 26, 2009. Other stories in series included Shock, Mystery Still LingerFirst Responders Look Back, Tougher DWI Laws Follow.

HARRISON, N.Y. - When the call came in about the crash on the Taconic State Parkway on July 26, 2009, Joe Bilotto knew he would have a lot of work to do.

Close to 40 emergency personnel -- cops, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics -- arrived on the scene of the crash considered the worst in Westchester County history.

The first responders rushed to the scene to find the lifeless, broken bodies of two children lying on the road. Two other children were alive; despite the paramedics' best efforts, only one survived.

Also in the roadway was the body of the driver of the minivan who caused the accident by driving drunk the wrong way on the parkway. Trapped in a vehicle nearby were three more dead victims.

By the end of the day, the scene was cleared, two of the eight victims were sent to the hospital, the remaining six to the morgue. The emergency personnel returned to their respective fire houses, police stations and ambulance corps headquarters. Little attention was paid to their role by the media, the survivors or the witnesses.

That's when Bilotto's work began.

"I was waiting for the call, and it came rather quickly, " said Bilotto, Harrison's Emergency Services Chief. "We responded immediately."

Bilotto is one of about 60 members of the Hudson Valley Critical Incident Stress Management Team. The team counsels emergency workers who come across a traumatic scene.

"It can be overwhelming to come across a scene like that," Bilotto said. "Just because we [emergency personnel] can respond to the scene and do our jobs, it does not mean that we can handle what we saw."

While Bilotto would not say what he said to the emergency workers who responded to that tragic crash, he did say that he and other team members spent a lot of time with those responders.

"After seeing something like that, you can't go home and talk to your family about what you saw, you need to talk to your peers," Bilotto said.

Bilotto, himself a paramedic for 21 years, said that after an experience such as the one on July 26, 2009, some emergency workers, lose their appetite, can't sleep or have nightmares.

"Basically, we talk to them," Bilotto said. "It is not therapy but it is therapeutic to talk about it to someone who understands."

The Hudson Valley Critical Incident Stress Management Team has been in existence for close to 20 years. The 60 volunteer members -- paramedics, EMTs, police officers, firefighters and psychologists -- do not get paid for their participation. They only come out if they are called, but Bilotto said that they are almost always called by agency chiefs when one of their crew deals with a traumatic call. Sometimes they are called to the scene of the accident, as they were on July 26, 2009.

Bilotto said that he will continue to speak to emergency workers even long after the incident is over. "We don't want to lose any of our emergency personnel," Bilotto said. "It is our job to make sure they are back at work and doing well."

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