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Responders Discuss Healing Process Following Incidents Like Aurora

LANCASTER, Pa. -- The atrocities encountered July 20 by emergency responders at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., are difficult to fathom.

They might be even harder to forget.

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That's according to a team of local emergency responders who faced a similar horror here nearly six years ago.

"Seems like it could have just happened yesterday," said Bob Hinkle, a local paramedic who, on Oct. 2, 2006, was dispatched to a one-room schoolhouse in Bart Township. "I don't know if I ever distanced myself from it."

Hinkle was one of the first responders to the West Nickel Mines School, a single classroom for Amish students taken over that day by Charles Carl Roberts IV.

Roberts barged into the school, dismissed the boys and adults, then took the 10 remaining girls hostage. He tied them up and shot them execution-style. Five girls died.

Police, medics and other emergency responders rushed to get the injured onto helicopters and into ambulances, anguished by the task of picking which wounded little girls needed help first.

"I don't think I'll ever forget it," Hinkle said Friday.

In Aurora, 12 people were killed and 58 others injured when a gunman opened fire in a packed movie theater.

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On Friday, Hinkle and two colleagues discussed the healing and recovery process that unfolded in the days, months and years following Nickel Mines -- a process the team said might never be complete.

"It's the smells and the sights, the little things, that stick with you," C. Robert May, executive director of Lancaster EMS, said. "All you heard were people hollering, and the helicopters."

Hinkle, May and Steve Wireback said they experience daily reminders of the victims they helped six years ago. All agreed it has become a part of who they are.

They sympathized with the Aurora first-responders who recently began the painful process of trying to make sense of senseless tragedy.

"How can you make sense of a guy going berserk and doing this kind of thing?" Hinkle asked. "People always say, 'Put it behind you.'

"I don't think you really can."

Wireback said that, in the days after Nickel Mines, the sight of green grass reminded him of the victims he had carried across a recess yard that day.

The students had played ball before Roberts came to the front door with a truck full of ammunition.

"The next day I was thinking about quitting," Wireback said.

May recalls the remnants of what were the five victims' last games.

"The baseball diamond, the bats and the gloves," May said. "It's the devastation of life at such an innocent environment.

"Who would have thought it would happen there?" he continued. "Who would have thought it would happen at a movie theater?"

Hinkle helped save one girl that day. Another girl he cared for passed away.

"I can still see the girls' faces," he said Friday. "You don't forget them."

In the aftermath, all three handled their grief differently.

Wireback took advantage of the Lancaster EMS employee assistance program, which provided counseling, and he relied on peer advice.

Hinkle said he kept a lot of emotions inside and leaned on his family for support.

May said he became even more protective of his kids.

Meeting with the surviving victims, they said, provided some solace.

Wireback helped 11-year-old Barbie Fisher, who lost her older sister, Marian, that day. Sometime later, Wireback met with the Fisher family.

"I asked 'Do you remember me?'" Wireback recalled of meeting Barbie. "It was a steppingstone in the process."

Wireback also delivered a message to John Fisher, the girls' father.

"I just want you to know we did all we could," Wireback told the man. Mr. Fisher responded with concern for Wireback's well-being.

Hinkle had a reunion with a different girl, whom he preferred not to name.

"She was a pretty, pleasant little girl," he said with a smile. "It was good for both of us."

The local team said reunions with the survivors will only help the first-responders in Aurora.

The riddle of why such senseless violence took place, however, likely will remain.

"You're talking kids here. They didn't do anything to anybody," Wireback said, noting that several of the Aurora victims were children. "They were just trying to learn."

May said: "Who would ever assume you can't send your child to school or a movie theater?"

As the news broke last week of what happened in Aurora, the local crew said their initial thoughts were of their comrades many miles away.

"I hope those guys in Colorado get through it OK," Wireback said. "I'm sure they will."


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