Firefighter John Sullivan answered the call on a December night in 1999 for smoke at an abandoned warehouse. In just a few hours, a half dozen of his brothers were dead.
“I went out the door that night with five firefighters, and I came back with just three of us,” Sullivan said.
Now, nearly two decades later, he's a deputy fire chief and that night still haunts him.
Six firefighters lost their lives on Dec. 3, 1999, battling the massive fire that destroyed the six-story Worcester Cold Storage and Warehouse Co. building on Franklin Street in Worcester.
“It’s affected my life in more ways than I care to contemplate,” Sullivan said.
He and some of his colleagues in the Worcester Fire Department carry that night on their shoulders and in their dreams. And according to a new survey, thousands of their colleagues just like them are troubled by traumatic work-related incidents.
In an unprecedented effort, NBC-owned stations partnered with the International Association of Firefighters to anonymously survey firefighters around the country, including in Massachusetts.
The responses from nearly 7,000 firefighters painted a picture of a silent work force still trying to overcome cultural barriers to dealing with the mental health damage caused by a dangerous and stressful career.
“We suffer from the same things as the general public, financial, marital issues,” said Jim Brinkley, director of occupational health and safety with the International Association of Firefighters. “Now you compound that with the horror we see every day, day in and day out. It adds up.”
Almost all surveyed—95 percent—said they experience critical stress on the job, and most said it leaves them with unresolved emotional issues.
Worcester Fire Chief Michael Lavoie rode to the warehouse that night, prepared to run in and find the other firefighters already inside attempting a rescue.
“Then we pulled up,” he said. “That’s when it hit me. If there is anybody in there, they are gone.”
Battling the fire that evening turned into a slow, grueling, days-long recovery mission, searching with dogs and by hand for their colleagues, their friends.
Lavoie said that mission tortured him for years.
“I didn’t know what was going on. Depression, anxiety. I was a mess,” he said.
“I realized a lot of it had to do with guilt from the warehouse fire and it was five, six, seven years later,” Lavoie added.
The NBC and IAFF survey revealed that three-quarters of firefighters have endured stressful experiences that have “caused lingering or unresolved emotional issues.”
Many have trouble sleeping and are constantly haunted by memories of bad calls: recurring unwanted memories, family and relationship problems, becoming withdrawn.
Twenty-seven percent say the stress has led to substance abuse. Nineteen percent say they have had thoughts of suicide.
It takes its toll.
Last year, 103 firefighters committed suicide, according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance.
But many firefighters don’t get counseling, citing a strong stigma against seeking mental health treatment.
Our survey found many are afraid to come forward. Eighty-one percent said they believe they will be seen as weak or unfit for duty. Eighty-seven percent said those stigmas keep them from seeking the help they need.
Lavoie recalled hiding in the parking lot before he could take his first step.
“I, myself, was spiraling out of control and I got to the point I had to make a call, but I had to go out to the back parking lot of the station, make sure no one was around because you were afraid someone was going to find out," he said.
That barrier is far too high, and Lavoie and his leadership are speaking up about their own experiences in hopes of making it easier for their brothers and sisters to get treatment.
“Fifteen years ago, we weren’t talking about it,” he said. “Not until maybe four or five years ago, I would have never even admitted to seeking a counselor. It was that bad.”
On Wednesday, NBC10 Boston will detail how the Worcester Fire Department’s loss in 1999 spurred it to be more proactive with its firefighters.
Click here for more information on Critical Incident Stress Management.