Austin American-Statesman: Silence, then a struggle with the heat and horror

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Silence, then a struggle with the heat and horror

Austin American-Statesman/1995-7-17

By Claire Osborn

No crying. No screaming. Just silence.

That silence -- along with the sights and smells of what is among the worst accidents ever in Austin -- will be what medic Jim Persons remembers about his Sunday afternoon at work. "It was surprisingly quiet," Persons, one of the first emergency workers to arrive at the scene, recalled later Sunday.

Pungent odors -- gas, oil, radiator fluid and blood -- saturated the air. A prayer book, a hairbrush, musical instruments and luggage lay strewn on the ground around the crumpled van.

Inside, the bodies of the dead and the living were piled on top of each other. Some passengers were so dazed they didn't realize they were standing on each other, Persons said.

Two of the bodies spilled out from the van's windows, but the vehicle had rolled on top of them. In the midst of the devastation, one dazed passenger struggled to free himself from the wreckage.

"This is the worst accident I've seen in 17 years," said Persons, the acting district commander for Austin's Emergency Medical Services. He said the victims' young ages made the tragedy harder to face.

"It's the fact that these are kids," Persons said. "And you look at it , and there are so many critically injured, and the injuries they have are so devastating."

Some firefighters talked about having children the same ages as the victims, and one police officer became alarmed when he mistakenly thought one of the girls could have been a niece, Persons said.

The enormity of the tragedy, Persons said, was compounded by the terrible heat, 94 degrees when the 1 p.m. accident occurred.

EMS medics and firefighters wore protective gear that made the temperatures dangerous, he said. One officer was taken to South Austin Medical Center because of the heat, and an EMS medic was treated at Brackenridge Hospital and released, Persons said.

EMS set up a unit with air conditioning, ice water and wet towels to cool rescuers at the scene.

Persons said he coped by focusing on getting his job done. In less than an hour, Persons and 17 other medics, firefighters and police officers pulled passengers out of both vehicles and got them to the hospital.

The impact of the accident might hit some EMS medics later, Persons said.

A critical incident stress team met with medics as they returned from the scene and will meet again with them in the next two to three days --after they have time to think about what happened, Persons said.