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"A PERSON THAT SAVED AT LEAST ONE LIFE WAS NOT BORN FOR NOTHING"

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TRAIN

It was a calm evening, typical of an end of winter in Jura. The ski slopes were just finishing their work, the rescuers were coming back to the main rescue station from patrols and field duties. Some of them, waiting for the evening briefing, were taking a nap... In such a sleepy atmosphere a sudden phone call has the sound of a thunderstorm. But even more unbelievable is the message: A train crush! Szczekociny!...

Nothing presaged such an unusual event that evening...

The rescuers from Olsztyn had just reported through the radio that around Sokole Góry they had seen two caving groups who were exploring the Koralowa and Studnisko caves, but who seemed well equipped and behaved professionally, so the danger of an accident was not so high here...

 

At the main rescue station, the atmosphere in the social room called Lotnisko was calm, someone played the guitar, someone sang a song about mountains, the search and rescue dogs were squealing happily because someone played with them...

 

And then, suddenly, this phone call.

That time it was not an accident typical of Jura: a climber falling from rocks, a caver stuck inside a narrow passage, a broken spine of a daredevil who fell from castle walls or a child lost in vast forests, a frequent case here...

This time the ambulance service from Zawiercie announced a train crush!

A head-on collision of two trains (from Warszawa to Kraków and from Przemyśl to Warszawa)! There were 60 injured! Maybe fatalities!

 

Oh God! It was only 20 minutes away!

 

Fire!

The rescuer on duty and at the same time the dispatcher in the main rescue station in Podlesice, Katarzyna Górska, announced in a calm but firm voice through the loudspeakers: Attention! Rescue teams! Mass accident! All rescuers to be immediately ready to leave!

 

The rescue station shook off the evening drowsiness. All lights were on, the people were running. Every rescuer grabbed his backpack. They were lacing their shoes, taking their jackets, first aid kits, backpacks, helmets and torches on the go...

 

The rescuer responsible for the rescue operations immediately divided the teams of rescuers into assault ones and a reserve one that had to stay in the station in case another accident happened at the same time (e.g. in a cave)...

First, two rescue Land Rovers, equipped in first aid kits as well as orthopaedic and resuscitation gear, were appointed to leave.

 

The drivers ran to the garage to pull out the cars and warm the engines.

The assault team consisted of well trained and extremely fit rescuers (a real medical commando), i.e. Jogi, Mateusz Domagała, Beata Glińska, Agata Pniak, Marcin Latosiński...

 

Soon the head of the rescuers in Jura, Adam van der Coghen, was also there. He made an instantaneous decision – the rescue team from Olsztyn (Natalia and Wojtek Gromadzcy) was to be immediately called!

The assault teams were to leave for the place of the accident. Fire!

 

The two off-road ambulances were soon ready, their engines throbbing, the blue lights of emergency signals flashing. The last rescuers ran to the cars and slammed the doors. The gate was opened and soon the sirens echoed loudly in Podlesice, normally quiet at that time of the day.

Fire!

 

The handlers of search and rescue dogs were on the ready, too, waiting for the call in the rescue station. Those were Dagmara Łobejko with Pako, Irena van der Coghen with Northon and Adam van der Coghen with Camel. The dogs, well trained to look for people in rubble, couldn’t hide their excitement. They understood the action, roaring of engines and wailing of sirens very well. They knew that their favourite part was coming – looking for stuck people, who are always very happy to see them...

 

In the meantime, the rescuers were speeding in the direction of Szczekociny. Some fire engines were unintentionally blocking the way – those were heavy, combat cars, much slower than the fast, off-road Land Rovers. We overtook them, but cautiously. The most important was to get to the destintion, not to have a stupid accident and end up in a ditch. The old saying goes: A dead rescuer is not a rescuer at all. Our drivers were highly concentrated on the road. Their focused faces were only visible in the dim light of the control panel. The precise place where the accident had happened was announced by the dispatcher through the radio: Turn right in Szczekociny, in the direction of Chałupki. We knew the place!

 

On the spot everything was like in a kaleidoscope... ambulances, fire engines, police cars... crowds of people making it difficult to understand who had been a passenger of those trains and who lived nearby and was there from the very beginning to give improvised help and who just came because of curiosity to see a tragedy...

 

More and more wailing vehicles appeared. We saw ambulances from all nearby cities: Zawiercie, Myszków, Częstochowa, Jędrzejów, Sosnowiec... we even spotted an ambulance of a private ambulance service Esculap run by Tomek Winiecki, a mountain rescuer from Zabrze.

Jogi, a senior mountain rescuer, reported the rescue teams to the fire fighter who coordinated the whole operation and was soon contacting the pilots of the approaching helicopters and coordinating organisation of an improvised landing spot, as a professional in ‘rescue from air’. The fire engines were grouped in the clearing and arranged into the shape of a huge letter C that nearly touched the forest and was lit by the engines.

 

The ambulance helicopters from Warszawa and Wrocław landed on the improvised spot thanks to the constant communication with Jogi and GPS parameters of the place of tragedy that he gave them.

The police fenced the place to keep away the onlookers, who were coming in huge numbers. The fire fighters put up huge, orange, heated air tents, used in cases of catastrophes. The place became well lit thanks to the fire fighters and police, who used the floodlights mounted on their vans, normally used in case of road accidents.

 

Another Land Rover of mountain rescue, driven by Mateusz Leks, came with Natalia and Wojtek Gromadzcy, the rescuers from Olsztyn. Thus, there were more and more mountain rescuers on the spot.

 

The rescuers were directed to the railway lines, to work by the crushed trains. The cooperation with the fire fighters, policemen, train guards and Red Cross rescuers was faultless. Everyone wanted to help others. As more bodies were pulled out of the crushed carriages, we dressed their wounds, placed them on the orthopaedic stretchers and ran with them to the ambulances, where nurses, medical rescuers and doctors were doing their best to help the injured.

 

Ambulances with the injured drove off with the sound of sirens, making place for the new ones. Unfortunately, some of the casualties could be helped no more...

 

We carried those who were not lucky enough to survive, on orthopaedic stretchers, covered with pouches, first to the place designed by the organisers for gathering the dead bodies, and later to a huge, dark tent. And there were more and more bodies there...

 

Some were massacred. We carried a body of a girl with a deformed head thrust into her shoulders as if she had no neck... There was also a man with  half of his head only... as well as one whose head was cut off, later found by a fire fighter and brought separately...

 

But we had to show no emotions. That was not our role. Both, the alive and the dead were in need of our efficient actions, not tears. We worked as a team, as machines. Calm but quick.

Quick for the living, so that they wouldn’t suffer more than it was inevitable. Calm for the dead, to show them maximum possible respect in the face of their deaths.

Forward and back again, with the orthopaedic stretcher. Forward and back.

Until there was no one else to be carried away from the smashed carriages...

No one else...

 

All the injured were driven away to the hospitals. Those who were only slightly injured, bruised or shocked, were taken to the improvised, warm shelters created by the local authorities in the schools.

 

We were no longer needed there...

 

The sky was becoming lighter. The dawn was breaking. We left the spot of the tragedy.

The road was empty. The tiredness suddenly fell on us, the muscles, so active a second ago, started shivering... Our eyes became sore from the lack of sleep, we suddenly felt all the minor injuries, bruised knees and elbows, we acquired during  the operation.

 

Our heads were humming...

But such silence around...

The emotions were slowly over. Our fleeces, wet from sweat, suddenly became cold.

We shivered from chill...

It felt so good to come back to our warm rescue station in Podlesice...

We would wash away the blood and mud stains. We would stick plasters on the bruises. We would have tea, prepared by the attentive friends who were on duty in the station. Then the rescue equipment would have to be cleaned and prepared for another rescue operation...

 

A rescue operation whose time and place is unpredictable...

 

But now the biggest dream of all is to have some sleep, even for a while, before another duty begins...

 

We will tell one another about the emotions of that rescue operation the next day only...

 

***

 

 

We would tell them about it, but definitely we wouldn’t tell them all... because the most shocking images: of the steel giants crushed on the tracks, of hundreds blue lights of emergency vehicles flashing in the darkness, of sirens wailing, of shouts and cries of people, of mud, blood and body parts... but also of the terrifying tranquillity of the dead – those images would stay at the bottom of our hearts and minds forever...

 

***

 

I dedicate this story to my young colleagues, mountain rescuers from Podlesice and voluntary rescuers of the Polish Red Cross, who were the backstage heroes of the operation near Szczekociny...

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