BECKLEY, W.V. — Capt. John Hitchens stepped into the sub-zero wind chills last week and was brought back to another cold day, more chilling than the weather ever could be — Jan. 30, 2007.
On that day, Hitchens, then a captain for General Ambulance in Fayette County, was dispatched to the scene of the Ghent Little General explosion. There, he learned the blast had killed one of his best friends. Honoring a pact he made with the fellow emergency medical services worker, he transported the body of 24-year-old MacArthur resident Craig Dorsey II from the scene.
“As soon as I walked outside, it instantly took me back to that day,” he said. “The temperature change brought it all back.
“It had to be something from the Arctic. It felt like the wind would cut through you, no matter where you were.
“It brings back a lot of memories. … It brings back a year.”
Hitchens, now the captain for Fayette County EMS operations for Jan-Care Ambulance, met Dorsey when both had a previous tenure at Jan-Care five or six years ago. On the day of the Ghent explosion, Dorsey was a firefighter/emergency medical technician for the Ghent Volunteer Fire Department.
That Tuesday morning, Hitchens was clearing a routine call when a supervisor called his cell phone. He was told he was immediately needed to respond to an explosion in Ghent. Every available General unit was being dispatched.
“All I knew was that there was an explosion somewhere in Ghent,” he said. “There was no time to talk.”
When he arrived at the scene, Hitchens was floored at the large affected area, noting the blast damaged nearby homes. Then he found out Dorsey was a victim of the explosion, but he did not yet know his friend had been killed.
“Everyone knew Craig,” Hitchens said. “Instinct kicked in. I wanted to be up there, even if there was nothing I could do for him. By that time, the explosion zone was secured. The (state) medical examiner, the ATF and the state fire marshals had to do their investigation.”
Survivors had been taken from the scene by EMS personnel who had been closer. For four hours, Hitchens stood in the bitter cold, helping a regional response team set up tents that became a temporary morgue. A multitude of ambulances eventually left the scene to handle other calls, but enough paramedics, including Hitchens, stayed to transport each of the four men killed.
When the paramedics were given permission to take the bodies from the scene, Hitchens said he requested that he be the one to transport Dorsey.
Three to four years before the explosion, Hitchens said, the potential danger faced by EMS workers came up in a general conversation he had with Dorsey. The two made a pact that if something happened to one, the other would transport from the scene.
“I said, ‘If anything would ever happen to me, you’re the one I’ll call,'” Hitchens recalled. “He said the same thing.
“Eighty percent of being a paramedic is trust with your patients. If your patients trust you, you will have better success in treating that person until they reach the hospital. At the worst time in your life, you need someone you can trust. … You want to know that person is not going to let anything happen to you.”
Hitchens said he had good reason to have that trust with Dorsey. He remembers Dorsey’s personality and strong sense of humor — and Dorsey playing practical jokes on him almost every day. No matter how badly Hitchens’ day had gone, Dorsey would always find some way to make him laugh. It was part of Dorsey’s nature to do whatever it took to brighten someone’s day.
“It didn’t matter what I said,” Hitchens said. “If I said I needed him to go cliff dive from Summersville Lake, he’d say, ‘All right.’ He’d do anything for you. He’d give the shirt off his back in a heartbeat. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Dorsey also showed his compassion for others while on job, Hitchens said.
“It takes a special person to do what he did,” he said of Dorsey. “He would hold an old lady’s hand. He would get a blanket for someone when it was cold. He’d talk to them. He went beyond what was expected. It was personal. He gave of himself. He loved what he did.
“He would hold your hand. He would let you cry on his shoulder. That’s what he would do.”
The ambulance ride from the explosion scene to Raleigh General Hospital is etched in Hitchens’ memory.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” he said. “It was the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Hitchens’ partner from General at the time, EMT Juddie Buckley, drove the ambulance while Hitchens rode in the passenger seat. Jan-Care paramedic Maj. Mike Harper rode in the back with Dorsey’s body.
“We were in total silence the whole time — all the way to Raleigh General,” he said. “It was a combination. Of course, it was out of respect, but it didn’t sink in until long after. Up to that point, I was just going through the motions.”
While en route, they were informed by Harper’s wife Jeannie, a paramedic and assistant chief for Jan-Care, that Dorsey’s father would meet them at the hospital.
At Raleigh General, Hitchens overheard some emergency responders who worked at the scene say they were “done” with their emergency service careers.
However, Hitchens said a continued desire to help others in need was one he could not ignore, making his career one he could not set aside. The same can be said about all others in emergency services. He noted he knew of no responders actually quitting after the explosion.
“It’s an individual decision to try to do something to help somebody else,” he said. “That’s the way I have chosen to live, providing emergency medical care to people in need.
“It gets in your blood. It’s like driving a tractor-trailer or working construction — it’s all you know.”
One of the most difficult aspects of going back to work after the explosion was not only dealing with his own emotions, but helping the employees he supervised with theirs. However, he had the support of his fiancee, Jan-Care paramedic Missy Franklin.
“I wouldn’t have made it without her,” he said.
As a supervisor, Hitchens has the opportunity to mentor younger EMS workers, and he tells them about Dorsey. He first uses Dorsey’s compassion and desire to help as an example. Then he tells them about that tragic day one year ago so everyone can learn from it.
“Those in the emergency services — law enforcement, fire departments and EMS — know there is a chance we will not make it home,” he said. “We all know who would be involved because we’re tightly knit.
“It has reminded me we are not immortal. The worst thing that can happen to us can happen at any moment. There are things we can help and things we cannot help. This could not have been helped. What we can help is being safe as possible — doing what we can do to take precautions. I’m older now. I know I can’t put on a cape and save the world like I thought I could.
“We can learn from 9/11, we can learn from Hurricane Katrina and we can learn from Ghent. Ghent may have not been as big of a scale as the others, but we can still learn from all of them.
“What I would want is for Craig not to be forgotten or any of the other victims to be forgotten. I would not want their sacrifices they made that day to be in vain. I would say we have carried that with us and have learned. That great loss made us all better people.”E-mail: [email protected]