Paramedics constantly prepare for major disasters, never knowing if the day will arrive when they will actually use that training. For Chad Stencel, the first emergency medical responder to arrive on the north side of the collapsed I-35 bridge, everything he had learned paid off.
The scene that greeted him was mind-boggling. The huge bridge was in the river, a shattered and twisted mess of concrete and steel. Some cars were in the water, others were crushed, and still others had dropped more than 60 feet before coming to brutally jarring stops on the pavement.
“My first priority was to survey the scene and separate the patients from life-threatening injuries to non-life-threatening injuries,” he told TODAY’s Natalie Morales during a live interview in Minneapolis.
He saw some people who were already dead and others who were severely injured and asking to say goodbye to their loved ones before they died.
“I had several emotional feelings going through me,” he said. “It was sad initially, but I still had a job to do, and you’ve got to continue and help the people who can be helped.”
The injuries had a common denominator. “There were a lot of orthopedic injuries — fractures of legs, severe cuts, bleeding, chest trauma, all sorts of blunt trauma injuries,” he told Morales.
For a time, Stencel had to deal with his job alone while other first responders rushed to the scene. It was then that all the classes he’d taken and drills he’d participated in took hold.
“You’ve still got to keep some of the training in the back of your head and still do the job and not let your emotions take over you,” he said calmly.
Stencel was back on the job on Friday morning, one of eight paramedics in four two-man teams. These teams are assigned to groups of divers and firefighters who have the grim task of recovering the bodies of the victims from the Mississippi River, and from underneath the debris and rubble.
“Should anybody get injured, we’re there for them,” he explained.
Morales asked Stencel what impact he thought his experience would have on him.
“It’s very life-changing,” he replied. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”