Neb. first responders attempt to heal after mall shooting
By Karen Sloan and Michael O'Connor
Copyright 2007 Omaha World-Herald
OMAHA, Neb. — Jim Boomsma won't soon forget the woman lying behind the customer service counter on the third floor of Von Maur.
She struggled to breathe as Boomsma, a paramedic captain, bandaged her wound and tried to give comfort.
"We're here to help you," Boomsma said.
Despite his efforts, the woman died.
Boomsma, in his 15th year with the Omaha Fire Department, said the woman and other victims of Wednesday's shootings at the department store at Westroads Mall remain on his mind.
"That comes home to roost," he said.
Three days after the shootings, first responders are continuing to come to terms with the grisly scene that confronted them as they raced to save the wounded and stop the shooter.
Some police officers and paramedics have confided their feelings about the massacre to family members.
Others have taken advantage of professional counseling services and chaplains offered by emergency agencies.
Many have turned to their colleagues in uniform for support in dealing with the tragedy.
The three Omaha police officers and two paramedics interviewed probably won't ever forget what happened at Westroads.
"I've never seen anything like that," said Officer Dave Staskiewicz, who was part of one of the first police teams to enter the department store. "You just deal with it the best you can.
"There are memories of things that we saw that I can't go into in detail," he said. "I'll probably remember it for the rest of my life."
Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren said the department does not yet have a total for all the first responders who were at the mall, though numerous local agencies responded.
Police Sgt. Steve Worley was the first to arrive, six minutes after the first 911 call was made. He had just finished a traffic stop on Interstate 680 and raced to Von Maur. He estimates he was in the store for close to a minute before backup arrived.
"It was quiet, other than the Christmas music playing. It was obvious that people had fled," Worley said. "I began searching for the suspect and for victims."
Worley said he quickly came across one victim who was near the first floor escalator and advised dispatchers. He declined Friday to elaborate on the victim's condition. Police have said the victims who died were on the second and third floors. Four others were injured.
"It was eerie. I guess it was surreal," Worley said. "It felt good to see backup."
Worley said he has spoken with his wife at length about his experience in the mall, but not to his five children. He said that talking with fellow police officers is "one of the best things we can do."
Police Sgt. George Merithew agreed.
"We are a brotherhood and a sisterhood. We have a support network," said Merithew, a detective who interviewed witnesses at the mall after the initial search was over.
Officers had little time to absorb the magnitude of what had happened, he said. At first, they were driven by adrenaline, and their training took over. After that, officers focused on their designated jobs, be it interviewing witnesses or processing the crime scene, Merithew said.
He said he has not spoken with a counselor, but Omaha Police Department spokeswoman Sgt. Teresa Negron said support is available through the critical incident stress debriefing team. The team consists of officers with special training in psychology, outside mental health providers and psychologists. Negron said the teams are available as needed for officers.
"The officers meet, and they can talk about what they're feeling," Negron said. "Arrangements (to utilize the team) have already been made with some officers."
The first step for paramedics and firefighters who responded to the shooting at Von Maur was a session Wednesday evening with trained peer counselors.
Joe Fuxa, acting assistant chief of the Omaha Fire Department, said emergency crews that responded to the Westroads shooting were required to attend the Wednesday session.
"It's a way to bring focus to what they just went through," he said.
Emergency crews are also told that free follow-up counseling is available. The follow-up sessions are voluntary, Fuxa said.
Bill Bowes, Papillion fire chief and one of the counselors at Wednesday's session, said the goal is to get emergency responders to talk about what they saw and did during the crisis.
Counselors try to get emergency crews talking about any resulting feelings, such as anxiety or depression.
Bowes said the most common emotion expressed at Wednesday's counseling session was the same one people in the community were expressing: disbelief that it happened here.
Boomsma said that after the emergency, more of the emotions begin to filter through. He spoke with his wife about the shooting. He told her he knows he tried his best Wednesday but still feels hopeless for not saving more people.