To the chaos in Seal Beach, firefighters bring focus, skill and heart
When Scott Belshe stepped through the door of Salon Meritage last Wednesday afternoon, the world around him fell to pieces. He heard screaming. He heard voices. He smelled gunpowder, and he couldn’t put anything together.
A firefighter with Station 44 in Seal Beach, Belshe has seen the beginning and end of life. He’s treated sickness, worked automobile accidents and fought house fires, but the violence and ruin that lay before him now was nothing he ever expected to see.
For a few seconds, time seemed to slow as he scanned the room, pausing on the victims, each apparently shot at close range, each forming a snapshot in his mind. He put down an EKG monitor and an orange case filled with IV fluids, bandages and medications and for the next half-hour, instincts — honed by 21 years experience — guided him through the worst mass killing in the history of Orange County.
Everyone seemed to be talking to him at once. He knew he had to tune them out. He knew he had to do his job: Count the victims, assess the severity of their wounds, stabilize their conditions and get them to the hospital. He needed to find some way to bring some order to the chaos that surrounded him.
Belshe was waved over by a paramedic from the Police Department and a worker from the construction site across the street. They were treating two women. He moved around the salon from one victim to the next, checking pulses and wounds. He had to let his captain, Alan Ladd, know how many more paramedic units and ambulances were needed.
Belshe, Ladd and the station’s engineer, Ed Hooper, were among the first on the scene. They call themselves firefighters, though they mostly respond to medical emergencies — heart attacks, seizures, traffic accidents, suicides, overdoses, falls.
They are experts in working methodically when others are frantic, focused when others are distracted and for a brief period of time — from mishap to hospital — they are the most important strangers in the lives of other people.
Belshe should have been home, putting up Halloween decorations for his daughters, but instead he agreed to work through the next shift when another paramedic called in sick. He is 44 and decided after high school to become a firefighter. He remembers visiting a station in Long Beach, and when he saw the engine, he felt like a kid and found his career.
The morning had been quiet. The three men met with firefighters from the nearby Naval Weapons Station to discuss coordinating response, and at noon, picked up sandwiches at the local deli. They watched the news on the television in the living room — the heat wave was on everyone’s mind — and heard sirens in the distance getting louder.
When the station’s alarm went off, followed with a report of the shooting, they quickly discussed whether they should put on bullet-proof vests. The scene was clear, Ladd said; the shooter had either fled or been detained. They climbed into the fire engine. Hooper toggled the ignition, and they pulled out of the station, sirens, lights and air horn blaring.
In his 15 years as a paramedic with more than 10,000 calls, Belshe had seen maybe 15 gunshot victims; about half were fatalities. He felt his adrenaline spike. Shootings — and calls involving children — were the hardest.
Once at the salon, Ladd made sure that his men would be safe. Respected for his decisiveness, he surveyed the scene and relayed the information to the dispatcher who was coordinating the response.
Hooper gathered two bags, one containing an oxygen tank and the other breathing equipment for patients, from the back of the fire engine. He assumed what lay ahead would be bad.
He stood in the entrance to the salon, and he stopped for a second. His eye darted around. Earlier that day, his wife had told him she was going to get her nails done, and he didn’t know where. He didn’t see her or recognize anything she might have been wearing amid the bodies, the blood and shell casings crowded by stylist chairs, sinks, counters and partitions. He put down his bags and joined Belshe.
As Belshe finished checking the victims, the enormity of the shooting weighed upon him. Of the eight in the salon, only two were still alive. He turned his attention to them.
“Ed, I need the airway bag and the oxygen,” he spoke loudly over the din of arriving ambulances, circling helicopters and radio chatter.
Hooper handed him the hand-operated breathing mask and went to get another bottle of oxygen. A few minutes after he returned, he helped escort a woman out of the salon. She had been in a small room in the back, the door closed. He tried to reassure her and handed her a towel to put over her head. He didn’t want her to see what they would be walking through.
“You’re doing good,” he told her as he walked backward, leading her toward the front door. Once outside, he removed the towel. Her friends were waiting for her.
In time, six paramedic units and four ambulances arrived. As the two women from the salon and the man shot in the parking lot were taken to the hospital, and the ambulance sirens receded, Belshe glanced around him. Magazines lay scattered about, a hair dryer was still running. He heard the ringing of the business phone and the ring tones of cellphones.
For a moment, he let himself imagine the friends and family of the victims, perhaps calling to say hi, perhaps calling to see if everything was all right, perhaps to ask them to pick up something at the market on their way home.
Before the firefighters could leave, they needed to follow protocol and run an EKG on the victims who had been killed. In each case, the monitor recorded on its small screen a straight green line.
Outside in the heat of the day, they cleaned up, momentarily self-conscious of the blood on their arms, gloves and equipment. They had been in the salon for about 30 minutes. Yellow police tape was everywhere, civilians stood in the distance, police and other firefighters gathered in clusters, news vans parked on the street.
They drank water and stood in the shadow of their truck. Hooper called his wife. He wanted to find out what salon she had gone to. Where she usually goes, she said, the one on Main Street. He felt himself relax.
The men spoke for the first time about what they had seen. They knew none of the victims by name, and they began to put together what they had heard: an ex-husband of an employee was the suspected shooter. They felt anger, disgust, bewilderment and sadness. They were confident they had done everything they could for the victims.
Hooper thought about the woman he escorted out of the building and wished he had asked her name. He didn’t know why. He wouldn’t have contacted her. Perhaps it would have personalized the moment.
The next day, Belshe’s wife and daughters came down to the station. He had another 24 hours on his shift. Daddy needs a hug, his wife had told their girls.
There was little that he said to his family or friends about what he saw in the salon.
“A pretty rough day,” he said, and left it at that.
Some people thanked him for his work, but he found it hard to accept gratitude for doing a job he has always done. He mostly thinks of the victims and their families.
When he trained to be a paramedic, he was 30, and the world didn’t seem so complicated. He loved medicine, and he loved working with people, especially seniors. The job was simple, but over the years the job changed him. At 44, he had grown more familiar with death. Life passes so quickly, he says; you never know when you’re done here.
The firefighters’ lives have resumed their everyday pace. Belshe had a few days off and went camping in the sand dunes of Glamis in Imperial County. Ladd and Hooper worked a few shifts at the station, getting two calls. They treated a fisherman at the pier who gashed his head while overhead casting and tended an older man who died of a heart attack, another straight green line.
With each straight green line, they become more philosophical. “The average firefighter sees more death and destruction in one month than 10 people will see in a lifetime,” says Hooper, repeating a well-practiced line that he shares with new recruits to prepare them for the job.
Ladd, 55, became a firefighter 34 years ago and doesn’t dwell on all that he has seen. Confidence in training and experience over the years have given him resilience, especially in situations where little can be done and the victims will die.
“Is there fate in life?” he asks. “You have to live with what you don’t know and take advantage of what you do know.”
The men have read stories of the eight victims. They have matched photos with who they remembered, trying to replace the images of that afternoon with pictures of life.
The mom who loved to cook Italian. The stylist who married her high school sweetheart. The daughter who enjoyed movies and motorcycles. The off-roading enthusiast who was always at the head of the pack. The salon owner who loved travel, golf and wine. The soccer mom who devoted her time to her daughter’s team. The retired healthcare supervisor described by a colleague as warm and brilliant. The nail artist who liked ocean paddle-boarding.
With 36 years in the department, Hooper is looking forward to his retirement in a few months. He just turned 60. The other night Hooper and his wife went to Home Depot. As they looked for carpet, he found himself checking each aisle, searching for anything that might not be right.
Over the weekend, he spoke with the pastor of his church. At home, away from the station, he was having a rough time. He talked in detail about what he saw — the wounds, the faces, the ringing cellphones, how everything happened so quickly while they were there — and with his tears, he was able to ease the memory.
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