Toledo police, fire struggle with response to tragedy
Nov 26, 2012 at 9:05 PM
This time, there were three of them — crowded into the back seat of a car — with their grandmother and uncle. All five were dead.
It was the kind of crime scene no police officer or firefighter wants to visit.
"Some people, if they would have known, would have called off sick. And I don't blame them," said John Lewton, a trauma intervention counselor and owner of Workplace Resources.
It didn't take long for the first police and fire crews on scene on Nov. 12 to know, generally, what they were dealing with.
Two hoses were stretched from the exhaust of a running truck, parked inside the garage, pumping toxic fumes into the rear passenger window of the blue Honda Civic where the children — Paige Hayes, 10, Logan Hayes, 7, and Madalyn Hayes, 5 — and the adults — Sandy Ford, 56, and Andy Ford, 32 — sat. All died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
There's no telling how long, exactly, they were there, and, though they might have liked to try, there was nothing that could be done to save them.
Although horrific, first responders are trained, and expected, to deal with whatever situation they're thrown into.
Lewton started working with emergency responders in Toledo years ago — in 1994 he started Workplace Resources, which operates under the Employee Assistance Program umbrella.
Every year he and others he works with are called to dozens of crime scenes, fires, and traffic crashes to help officers or firefighters who experience the trauma firsthand.
He got a call from a Toledo police lieutenant, who also volunteers with employee assistance, who said they were needed on Harvest Lane.
Occasionally, someone might step out from the chaos for a break and find themselves at Lewton's side, asking questions that might never have answers.
"The situation was so bizarre," Lewton said. "We got a whole bunch of, 'How could this happen?' . 'Who could do this to kids?'"
The crews know Lewton doesn't have all of the answers, but even just asking can help.
"It's rhetorical but at the same time it allows them to step out of their role as a detective or street cop or command officer," he said.
During the course of the investigation, investigators learned that Sandy Ford and Andy Ford conspired to kill themselves and the children to prevent the three siblings from living with their biological parents.
Firefighters using a sledgehammer broke down a door to the garage and found the bodies.
Although training kicks in and responders move "on auto pilot," days like that are miserable.
"The ones that sadden and anger the policemen most are the ones that involve children," Lewton said. "Most of them are moms and dads. They say, 'I looked at that kid and saw my own kid's face.'"
Toledo fire Lt. Matthew Hertzfeld, who spent 27 years responding to calls for service before becoming the department's spokesman, agreed.
"There's a sensitivity to children," said the lieutenant, who is a father himself. "You can't help but have it impact you. I think it would be hard to say that you don't look down at the child you're holding in your arms and think about your own son or daughter."
Lewton said he talked to several officers while they were at the scene, but expects that in the coming days and weeks they will get more calls from officers who want to talk.
Once fire crews from Station 23 left the scene, the crews had a debriefing with Lewton and another woman from the Employee Assistance Program, which is fire department protocol.
The crews are taken out of service — meaning they don't respond to calls — and had a question-and-answer session.
The idea of having people from Workplace Resources on hand is to get in front of any negative side effects of experiencing trauma.
"It's important for people to understand that these men and women are doing their jobs and they see stuff and smell stuff and hear stuff that most of us don't," Lewton said. "It's not that they're having a stress disorder, what we're doing is preventative. ... It's a preventative technique so they don't develop something wrong later."