The Man Behind The Helmet

A Rotten Day…

When I first started on my project, my initial idea was to show the man as he is rather than the technical sides of the interventions. The sensitive human being and his feelings in front of the situations he meets in the exercise of his duties; not the archetype of the firefighter. Discover these heroes, who do their very best with what they have. By following them, by living by their side, I knew that I would inevitably be confronted to some difficult situations.

For me, the most terrible events happened during a particular and unique day. A never-ending and very painful day, which memories haunted me during several weeks. My worse day as a “fireman”…

Everything began as routine. Call of duty at 8 in the morning, first gathering for assignments, assorted with some instructions, such as which streets to avoid because of roadwork or possible congestion. After that, inventory of the equipment and disinfection and sterilization of the rescue vehicles. As usual in these moments of preparation and waiting, everybody was in good humor and the jokes flew fast. At 8:45, our beepers informed us of an emergency at the exit of an underground station near the opera house of Lyon, with a code meaning “thoracic pains”. What you have to know is that, in reality, each of these codes is only the general estimation of a situation and hides an unknown factor. For it is impossible to know precisely what the problem is before arriving on site.

We immediately hopped into the emergency and rescue vehicle and rushed to the place, all sirens wailing. On arrival, under a light rain, we found a man spread-eagled on his back, head tilted back, mouth open. A young medical student, who was there by pure chance, was giving him cardiac massage while waiting for the arrival of our team. The men immediately took over and began to massage him and shock his heart with a defibrillator. It is generally a very good thing to be able to take charge of a victim as soon as they fall. The brain remains irrigated as long as the heart works thanks to the powers of the massage. The team leader called the central to ask for a team of emergency doctors. I began to take pictures, but I noticed a public transportation card on the ground, and I picked it up. It was the victim’s. The rain was getting thicker; soon, it was pouring so much that it was impossible to work, and the firefighters decided to move the man a few meters away, in a nearby pharmacy; to be able to continue their efforts. I still see myself standing by, transportation card in hand, making photos of the four firefighters and the four doctors doing their utmost to reanimate this man, in vain. All the absurdity of life, of my profession, blew up in my face. I had to force myself to remember that I was not taking pictures of a human being at the moment where he was leaving our world, but of the eight persons struggling and trying to save him. Then there was the woeful verdict of the head-doctor, a sentence I can still hear ringing in my ears today, as a knell tolling: “Time of death, 9:45…” His name was Sylvain. He had not reached his sixtieth year.

I was truly shaken to see this man leave us. I really needed a little respite, but my fate had other plans for me.

We were called in response to the suicide attempt of a young girl. Upset as we were by the first event of the day, we arrived on site even more quickly than the first time. At a bus stop, we found a very overweight young woman, looking 17 or 18 years old; she was lying on the ground and quite unresponsive to stimulations. After having transported her to the emergency ward of the hospital, we discovered that she was only 12 years old. Crushed by the constant and cruel mockeries of her classmates making fun of her weight and her girth, she had swallowed an entire box of anxiolytic pills. I could not discover anything more about her situation, as she was a minor, being under 18, and I was not family, but somebody told me that although the drugs were not innocuous, especially in such a dosage, she was responding very well to the first examinations and treatments.

We did not spend much time at the station house, this day. But the calls, while numerous, became gradually less serious, to end on some “scratch calls” as the men say when talking about really benign interventions.

At 7:30 p.m. we got back to the station, after a really trying day. We were barely in since five minutes when our beepers rang again: a woman was about to jump from her balcony, on the last floor of an opulent building of Lyon. We rushed towards the scene. The lady was already on the outer side of her guardrail. She seemed slender, slight of build. The measures taken and the deployment of troops were impressive. The police officers had interrupted all traffic on the boulevard. The large telescopic ladder was there and several firefighters, still on the ground, were talking with the desperate woman and trying to make her listen to reason. At this moment, one of the members of the squad I had been accompanying all day long, Christophe Pons, to name him, came to me and told me: “Charles, it has been difficult today. You are still in shock after our victim of this morning. If she jumps, you need to close your eyes and cover your ears, otherwise the noise will haunt you all your life.” I looked at Christophe, then at the ladder and the men behind the truck, who were still trying to persuade the woman. Less than a minute after, time froze and everything suddenly seemed to happen in slow motion. The men raised their hands and yelled: “No! No! No!” The woman stretched her arms widely and made a step. I dropped my camera, closed my eyes firmly, covered my ears. Five, ten, fifteen seconds after, I cannot know because I had lost any notion of time, I opened my eyes, without looking at the foot of the building but towards the men near the truck. I wanted to delay as much as possible the moment when I would discover the final expression of sorrow of a human being pushed to the limits of despair. But the men that I imagined eyes closed, stricken by this tragic event, were laughing and congratulating each other. I immediately understood that the thing everybody dreaded had not happened and raised my eyes. The woman was there, in midair, suspended to the hand of a policeman, himself held back by a firefighter, who had caught her at the second she was jumping. The two men had entered her apartment and succeeded in sneaking behind her without her noticing. All these men who devote their existence to helping the public had just given me the true illustration of what I was seeking from the beginning of my project. People who, while not possessing any superpowers, are bona fide heroes.

This day which had so badly began with the demise of a man ended with the successful rescue of a woman in absolute despair, convinced that she had been deserted by everyone, unable to find any other solution than to seek her own death. As I am writing those words in conclusion, an image comes back in my mind, the image that struck me at the end of this day: it had begun under the rain, but when the ladder folded back, while everyone was congratulating themselves on having saved a life, the clouds opened on a beautiful ray of sunlight.