Life and Death

I’m sitting by the pool on a nice holiday, just the two of us. The eldest is still in America with her fiancé, the middle one has just finished her degree and is heartily celebrating (still, from Monday) and the little one, known as ‘The Baby’ is in Italy on her year 8 school trip. Perfect opportunity for us to take advantage of the ‘during term time’ holiday prices and get ourselves away on a sun holiday alone…. the first time since our honeymoon in 1992 in fact, apart from weekend breaks which to be fair have featured fairly frequently over the years thanks to benevolent grandparents.

The last fatal fire I attended, just a few weeks before I retired.

After a nice lunch, served to us on our Bali bed in a prime slot by the pool. It was noticed yesterday and secured triumphantly by me this morning after a rapidly eaten breakfast. I put my headphones on turn on a Spotify playlist and laid back for a post lunch doze, I began to drift away in my thoughts, feeling blessed and happy with the cards life has dealt me.

A half remembered dream I had last night came back to me, a fire. It was in Bethnal Green, somewhere off of Globe Road but on an estate of 1960’s maisonettes that were a mishmash of many I know in the East End. One was well alight, I could see it, but I was a few streets away. I was very much in the present, retired, bearded and driving my own car and not one of my previous LFB lease cars. A police car came past so I pulled out behind it, using my road horn and flashing my headlights in the absence of the blue lights and siren fitted to previous cars.

Arriving at the fire, it was a scene played out to my eyes many times over, flames, smoke, chaos, noise and a solitary Fire Engine with the demands and expectations of twenty or more Firefighters bearing heavily on just five of them until back up arrived. It was definitely in the present, they had the new Fire kit on, that my retirement pre-dated by three months. And in charge was a young and very competent Watch Officer who had served under me in Hackney, when I was there. I asked her what she needed done and she replied something about three being dead, pointing to a body on the floor at the entrance to the maisonettes, as if it had fallen from the upper windows.

Bizarrely, a current serving Principal LFB officer was also there, in shirt sleeve uniform, stood on the grass in front of the block shouting agitatedly but doing very little. You could draw a lot from that, but in actual fact, this nameless Officer is a very competent and not one of those I have personal doubts about.

I ran over to the body and thought about CPR but in the weird way in which dreams play out, the Watch Officer was now right next to me telling me it was too late “They’ve gone” and bystanders were protectively covering the casualty from my attempts at help. As with dreams it all got very strange, the fire was now at the very top of a medium rise block of flats that I know in Dagenham, my attempts to inform everyone of this were being frustratingly ignored.

I can’t be sure whether I’d actually dozed off or not whilst thinking of my dream, but all of a sudden my mind was full of incidents I’d attended over my career where people had lost their lives. Honestly, I can’t recall how many… a few dozen incidents at least, mostly, thankfully single fatalities but of course Terror Attacks and Grenfell Tower are in there and we don’t need reminding of those numbers.

Some I remember well, by timing, circumstances, infamy or whatever. Others are forgotten but a drive along a road, a random memory or some other prompt takes me back and others I’m sad to say have just been forgotten buried in among almost fifty one years of memories of my time on this earth.

As a young Firefighter, I was anxious about seeing my first fatality. It didn’t take long, probably about six weeks as I recall. I was fine, it was what it was, it was a body in a fire on a boat in the Docks, I didn’t pass out, scream or run away. I can’t remember the next or the one after that… oh hold on, I just have. First time in years. A relief to a flat fire in Stratford just before Christmas.

It soon became part of the job and didn’t worry or affect me at all. I had a bit of a hard time after finding a three year old boy dead in a house fire in Plaistow in the early 90’s, I had some weird dreams about him, not after the fire but after the inquest strangely, but on the whole no big deal. When I became a senior officer, by virtue of the role I held I’d only really attend more serious incidents so the body count added up, but no ill effect was ever noted. Fires, car crashes, industrial accidents. I knew what I’d got into and had been doing it a long time, it was no secret.

I had an epiphany one night. I’d been to a serious road traffic collision on a notorious road heading up towards Hainault out of Romford. It was known as a black spot and I stood there in a field next to the wreck of a car with a young kid hanging out of the door clearly dead. I was talking to the Station Officer in charge of the incident about what had happened and remembered his wife had been ill, so I casually asked him how things were while some poor kid, his life cut short sixty or more years early was just a few feet away.

Driving home after satisfying myself all was well at the incident, I was literally a hundred yards from my house in Hornchurch, when it hit me that I’d become so robotic about death in my role at work that I’d stopped remembering how many fatalities I’d seen and had become ridiculously casual about it. That was no bad thing, I think it was a benefit that I wasn’t affected or haunted like some I’d known, but I’d always considered myself a caring person, inwardly quite sensitive despite the harsh exterior. So I suddenly felt very guilty and promised myself I’d try to do more to remember them and at least offer a prayer.

I think I mostly did, I can’t say for certain as by that point, 2004, I still had fourteen years to serve and some of the incidents in the later years were too hectic or despite my best efforts they have slipped away.

But what each of them did from that point and thinking back to all of those previously, that I could remember. They gave me a great appreciation for how wonderful life is, the everyday, the mundane, the irritating, the sad, the proud, the ecstatic and onwards. Each one of those is a notch in life’s post that prove I am still here, enjoying or not, what that day brings to me. Even though I wear my heart on my sleeve and am not shy of vocal complaint, I’ll always think of those people, most of them taken a long time before a life was well lived, in the blink of any eye in the most tragic of circumstances that could befall any and all of us.

I don’t remember you all, I remember the first, I remember the last, in a sheltered housing complex in North East London just a few weeks before I retired. I remember the little boy, the murder victim in the car, the man down a hole on a building site, the old girl, sat in her kitchen like she had fallen asleep and many more. May you all Rest in Eternal Peace, may your God be with you and as long and everyone who knew you is still alive, you will live on.

I’m not sure what prompted this, possibly the fact that life, as fragile as it is, is treating me good at this time and always has. Like everyone there have been ebbs and flows all the way through. The loss of a parent, hard times with money when we were young, small personal tragedies. I’m under no illusion, none of us know what is a day, week or month away, but I’m happy with my lot as I sit here today.

It may also be a bit of survivor guilt, the dream at a particularly happy part of my life playing tricks on me. I don’t know, but whatever, I needed to write about it today. If anyone is affected by this or this opens up any uncomfortable feelings or memories, please talk about it. It’s OK not to be OK.


8 thoughts on “Life and Death

  1. Hi Steve you are so right in my job we have some customers who are on end of life care. One in particular I keyworked when she was running around and then in a matter of 4 years was literally dying in front of us. Due to a nasty debilitating disease. It huts you hard at times, talk and get it out, several more have died as well. We as a team support each other. If you don’t then it will affect you later and believe me it does. It’s great reading your blogs though. Best wishes Sue and Peter.

    • Mate,I’ve been retired over 20 years now,I still have these mixed up dreams,we had our fair share of fatales at F30 and surrounding area ,and again it didn’t really bother me but it’s this time of year.nearly the anniversary of Gillender st where it all kicks off again big time,enjoy your holiday and your daughters great need .

  2. They never leave, just hang around, and stop by when you least expect them. Well written, but caused a few to stop by and say Hi, to me.

  3. Steve I think this was waiting to come out when you had time to relax and review. We all waited to see our first fatality unsure how we would cope with it.

    I had barriers that would crash down at incidences shielding me from what was happening. I was one who like you would not feel much for the person had just died. It was a job and once the incident was finished. I remembered most of my fatalities but am still not bothered by them.
    We all have our own coping strategies to protect ourselves.
    My breakdown did not have nightmares or PTSD. It was me not coping with demands as a dad and husband having responsibilities and a station office with responsabilities with station life and not separating the two.

  4. 30 plus years leaves all sorts of memories mate, some come back interwoven with other events that did impact on you but you just didn’t realise it at the time! Not everyone has the gonads to write about their experiences or are articulate enough to place experiences on paper Steve but doing something like this can be cathartic not just for the writer but for the reader who has shared similar, reading about your experiences will definitely help me reflect on my own time in and help put perspective on what I/you/we all did.

  5. Steve it was good to read about your service, I’m x job Kent now living in Derbyshire and a chaplain to the fire service , it is alway good to put things in prospective, in writing or to talk things over, I left the service after 28 years with ptsd

  6. Steve,
    Powerful words, and sure much of what you have reminisced has touched many of us in the job, or our fellow, #Emergencyservicesfamily Colleagues

    Those simple little things like driving down a street (doesnt have to be THE street, that flags up “that Job” …..Remembering the post box on the corner, where the fatal fire occurred or madly searching for the hydrant as a driver knowing the lads have gone in already ……..or even thinking about the crazy things that made us laugh!!
    It’s amazing that we automatically revert to the negative as humans rather than those funny crazy situations that created a belly laugh and mess room table stories for a Millenia to come but we need to go and search for in our brain bank! We are a strange beast

    Wow so powerful!!
    More power to your elbow Steve……..
    And thank you

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