On May 21, 1998, Springfield, Oregon, Fire Chief Dennis Murphy was at his usual morning post: sitting at his desk, going over paperwork. "I'd been in since 7:00 am," he remembers, "working at my desk, was when I got a telephone call. They called me directly and I'm wondering why, because they're going off; I can hear the siren. And they say, 'We're en route to Thurston High School. We have a report of a shooting with multiple patients down. We know it's at least three, maybe as many as seven.'"
The first call came across at 0756 hours, a shooting at Springfield's Thurston High School. Immediately, both Springfield Police and Springfield Fire & Life Support responded. Paramedic Captain Mike Hackett's crew was the first to respond, sending both a three-man engine and a two-man ambulance. While en route, Hackett's crew heard the reports of multiple patients down, as did Chief Murphy. "Next I got a call from another incident commander," Murphy says, "the deputy chief of training (Dan Stuckey), who said, 'I'm en route and I don't know if the incident commander's been able to call you, so here's what I have.' What they were doing was taking the radio updates while they were en route. He said, 'We have a confirmed minimum of seven.'
"We didn't know the shooter had been captured at that point," Murphy points out. "We didn't know if we had a hostage situation or the shooter pinned down, or even if our people could get to the patients. Information was flowing at a rate of about four messages every 30 seconds, and a report that said there were 16 down. So I'm going, 'Holy moley.' Then they say they believe that the shooter is under control. So I say to myself, 'Okay, we don't have a hostage situation, we don't have a threat to our people, we'll be able to go in immediately, this is good.'"
On the scene, it wasn't nearly so good. Kipland P. Kinkel, 15, had turned the Thurston High cafeteria into a war zone, opening fire on more than 400 students with a .22-caliber semi-automatic rifle he'd hidden under a trench coat. Kinkel fired 50 shots from the .22 as he walked slowly across the room. As he paused to reload, one of his victims, student wrestler Jake Ryder, charged Kinkel. Surprised, Kinkel apparently dropped his rifle and pulled a 9-mm Glock handgun, firing one shot that hit Ryder in the hand. Despite his injuries, Ryder and his brother, Josh, managed to tackle and restrain Kinkel until police arrived. At 0804 hours, Springfield Police reported Kinkel in custody. In eight minutes, one student had been killed and 23 others wounded.
First on the scene, waiting for police to secure the situation, Mike Hackett begins to see what he's up against. "We knew it was pretty bad when we were initially staging and there were hundreds of kids running away from the school with panic and fear in their faces. We were staged, and we knew we had multiple patients, and we saw hundreds of kids running through the fields, just away from the school, in absolute fear and panic. That's when I knew something bad was going on." Barely a minute after arrival, Hackett's crew is given the all-clear and told that there are at least two patients down outside the cafeteria, with the rest apparently still inside. Hackett recalls, "The most critical student was right outside the cafeteria, kind of around the back side of the cafeteria. He had a point-blank gunshot wound to the back of the head. Then there was another kid about 10 feet from him who had been shot in the face."
Inside the cafeteria, Hackett expected to find chaos, but he was caught off-guard by the students and school personnel. "When I walked into that cafeteria," he says, "it was surreal. A real calmness, a real peace. Nobody was panicking. Completely unlike our usual multi-casualty drills. The uninjured kids from a health class were in there helping other kids, the school staff was helping. There wasn't panic, there wasn't screaming or fear. There were kids crying because I was cutting off their favorite jeans or their favorite sweatshirt. One girl, all she wanted was her headphones on so she could listen to music. It was like a bad dream. I kept thinking, 'My God, am I going to wake up from this?'"
Meanwhile, at Springfield city hall, Chief Murphy has begun to set up the communications center. Springfield communications director Rosie Pryor recalls, "We were getting calls essentially from three groups: parents looking for their children, news media, and people calling to offer help. Literally, the phone was ringing every 60 seconds. We took 7300 phone calls. In a typical month, we take 1000." The decision was made to consolidate all calls to a single number, to relieve the overwhelmed 911 system and the other numbers people were calling in search of information.
City hall became a beacon. News media from around the world descended on Springfield en masse. "I don't think you plan in advance for something like that," Pryor admits. To deal with the crush, a team formed. "By noon," Pryor says, "there were at least six of us here with professional expertise, and we became an ad-hoc team. I had the Eugene and school district PIOs triaging network media calls, determining who we needed to respond to because their deadlines were most pressing and immediate. The east coast media had 3:00 am and 4:00 am needs, because that's when the 'Today' show and 'Good Morning America' and so forth go on the air, and they wanted to do live interviews."
The communications center also had to massage media egos, taking care not to fawn over the nationals at the expense of the local press. To deal with this, the center began blast-faxing all updates to as many as 60 media outlets around the world, ensuring that everyone from the local paper to the BBC got the same information at the same time. All calls were given equal priority, with the operators taking the caller's name, affiliation, and fax number, then adding them to the blast-fax Rolodex.
At Thurston High School, the EMS personnel were working full-tilt. The injuries ranged from minor scrapes to life-threatening through-and-through bullet wounds. "We had a lot of strange wounds," Hackett remembered later. "I had a kid that was shot in the butt, I had a girl that was shot like three or four times in the leg, I had a young girl that was shot in the forehead. A lot of graze wounds. I had a kid that was shot once in the femur, once in the hip, and once in the shin. His girlfriend was sitting there comforting him, and as we got him loaded up and transported a teacher said, 'You might want to check out that girlfriend, I think she's been shot, too.' So I went over there and said, 'Are you okay?' She said, 'Yeah, I was shot in the elbow.' Then she pulled up her shirt and she was also shot in the abdomen."
In several instances, at least three students were hit by a single bullet. Ricochets accounted for several wounds. There were a number of panic and escape wounds - fractures, trampling, falling, etc. - but the vast majority of the wounds were gunshots. Chief Murphy says he "was shocked at the number of the kids hit. I don't know that the nation has ever recorded a mass school shooting incident where more people were hit by lead."
Amazingly, in spite of the number of victims and wounds, the scene was cleared in less than an hour, almost too quickly for the impact of the event to register. "For me it was after it was all said and done," remembers Captain Hackett. "I remember walking back into the cafeteria to check for any supplies we may have left and all the kids were gone. It was a picture I'll never forget. All these medical wrappers from all of our supplies laying around, piles of blood and vomit. I looked around at my coworkers and some of them were crying, obviously very moved and upset, and I knew we'd just been through a major incident. That's when it really hit me emotionally, what had really happened."
Hackett was far from alone in feeling that way. Six paramedics who arrived on scene had to deal with the ultimate nightmare - having to do a job while not knowing if their child was among the wounded.
Paramedic Captain Paul Esselstyn was one of them. All he knew was that his daughter was supposed to be in the cafeteria that morning. As an adjunct in the triage center, Esselstyn saw every victim and almost every student, believing that "the next one" would be his daughter. He watched as the other paramedic/fathers, one by one, were reunited with their children. Only Esselstyn's daughter, of the EMS family members, was unaccounted for. It wasn't until Esselstyn had left the scene that he received the news that his daughter was unhurt. She'd forgotten her books and returned home to pick them up, missing the shooting.
As Chief Murphy tells it, "He (Esselstyn) had been through an hour and a half of the most bloody scene in the world. He lived through a personal hell throughout the entire event, and still sucked it up in order to treat those kids. When she called, he just absolutely disintegrated, he fell apart. The relief that rushed over him, the sorrow he had, everything just came rushing out right there."
It was, without a doubt, the hardest job anyone there had ever had to do. But they not only did the job, they aced it. Springfield and Eugene paramedics point with justifiable pride to the fact that there were 23 kids down - one dead on the scene and 22 wounded - and the wounded were all triaged and transported within an hour. Only one of the wounded children would die; Ben Walker, 16, was shot in the back of the cranium as he attempted to flee and died the following day. Chief Murphy says, with deserved pride, "I'm not sure that we're the trauma system par excellence, but something happened here and the outcome was outrageous, very good."
Chief Murphy believes that the outcome was a result, primarily, of a paramedic to patient ratio of better than 1:1, a result of both cities legislating "all-ALS" response so that every fire engine and ambulance in Springfield and Eugene is an Advanced Life Support Unit with one or more paramedics on every fire engine and ambulance. "Fire unions and others will sometimes argue overload," Murhpy snorts, "that that's too many skills, that you can't keep them all up. I say baloney. Check the track record at this scene. Those firefighters can do paramedic work, and we can fight a mean fire, too." For Springfield, the economics make sense, letting the city keep more trained EMS personnel on the streets - since the firefighters have to be on duty anyway - without having to hire more bodies.
The "all-ALS" response helped with the seamless integration of multiple jurisdictions, agencies, and personnel under a single, unified command as well. Separated by not much more than the Willamette River, Springfield and Eugene share an "automatic aid system" under which the regional 911 center pulls resources as needed from either jurisdiction, placing the respondents under the command of a single incident commander. "In our case," Murphy explains, "there's an absolutely seamless integration between Fire and EMS, including the transportation element, and we behave identically when it comes to emergency care and transportation of the sick and injured. So it uncomplicated a multi-agency event."
Luck played a part, too. The shooting occurred at approximately 8:00 am, right at shift change for both Springfield and Eugene, and neither was responding to a single call. As a result, there was more than 100 percent capacity available - something you can't count on, but that made a huge difference in this instance. In addition, the shooting took place in a natural triage area, the school cafeteria, with everything you could ask for - protection from the elements and onlookers, controlled access, numerous tables for examinations and staging, good lighting, the works. On top of that, the cafeteria was only a few yards from the school's main entrance, a U-shaped drive that had two access points to N. 58th St. And directly across the street from Thurston High School sits United Methodist St. Paul Center, a church whose parking lot was perfectly suited for transportation staging.
More good fortune: while all of Oregon's Level I trauma centers are in Portland, there are two Level II centers within 10 miles of Thurston High. Springfield's McKenzie-Willamette and Eugene's Sacred Heart Medical Center shared the burden equally, with 12 patients taken to McKenzie-Willamette and 11 to Sacred Heart. (While their injuries may have warranted helicopter evacuation, none of the patients were flown out, simply because the nearest helicopter is 45 miles away.)
Weeks after the incident, as news of Kip Kinkel's indictment on 58 felony charges filters out, Chief Murphy can look back on May 21 and say, "We've already admitted that we had some fortuitous circumstances. Had this incident happened during our peak load time, there would have been delays. It could've taken us easily an hour and a half, two hours to clear the same scene. In that period of time, a whole lot of things can deteriorate. They all could've occurred here if we'd been under a peak load, at the wrong time, at the wrong place. We had some acts of God that worked for us.
"But," Murphy emphasizes, "this system, Springfield and Eugene jointly, was recognized in 1985-86 by NAEMT as the number-one EMS system in the United States, and there's a reason. We just showed some of the reason, some years later."
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