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To the chaos in Seal Beach, firefighters bring focus, skill and heart

Scott Belshe and his colleagues from Station 44 in Seal Beach find a world falling apart in the Salon Meritage. Their instincts and experience carry them through; the tears would come later.

October 20, 2011|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times
  • Paramedic Scott Belshe reflects on last week's slayings at the Salon Meritage in Seal Beach. Belshe was one of several emergency-team members at the scene of the mass shooting.
Paramedic Scott Belshe reflects on last week's slayings at the Salon… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

When Scott Belshe stepped through the door of Salon Meritage last Wednesday afternoon, the world around him fell to pieces. He heard screaming. He heard voices. He smelled gunpowder, and he couldn't put anything together.

A firefighter with Station 44 in Seal Beach, Belshe has seen the beginning and end of life. He's treated sickness, worked automobile accidents and fought house fires, but the violence and ruin that lay before him now was nothing he ever expected to see.

For a few seconds, time seemed to slow as he scanned the room, pausing on the victims, each apparently shot at close range, each forming a snapshot in his mind. He put down an EKG monitor and an orange case filled with IV fluids, bandages and medications and for the next half-hour, instincts — honed by 21 years experience — guided him through the worst mass killing in the history of Orange County.

PHOTOS: Seal Beach shooting

Everyone seemed to be talking to him at once. He knew he had to tune them out. He knew he had to do his job: Count the victims, assess the severity of their wounds, stabilize their conditions and get them to the hospital. He needed to find some way to bring some order to the chaos that surrounded him.

Belshe was waved over by a paramedic from the Police Department and a worker from the construction site across the street. They were treating two women. He moved around the salon from one victim to the next, checking pulses and wounds. He had to let his captain, Alan Ladd, know how many more paramedic units and ambulances were needed.

Belshe, Ladd and the station's engineer, Ed Hooper, were among the first on the scene. They call themselves firefighters, though they mostly respond to medical emergencies — heart attacks, seizures, traffic accidents, suicides, overdoses, falls.

They are experts in working methodically when others are frantic, focused when others are distracted and for a brief period of time — from mishap to hospital — they are the most important strangers in the lives of other people.

Belshe should have been home, putting up Halloween decorations for his daughters, but instead he agreed to work through the next shift when another paramedic called in sick. He is 44 and decided after high school to become a firefighter. He remembers visiting a station in Long Beach, and when he saw the engine, he felt like a kid and found his career.

The morning had been quiet. The three men met with firefighters from the nearby Naval Weapons Station to discuss coordinating response, and at noon, picked up sandwiches at the local deli. They watched the news on the television in the living room — the heat wave was on everyone's mind — and heard sirens in the distance getting louder.

When the station's alarm went off, followed with a report of the shooting, they quickly discussed whether they should put on bullet-proof vests. The scene was clear, Ladd said; the shooter had either fled or been detained. They climbed into the fire engine. Hooper toggled the ignition, and they pulled out of the station, sirens, lights and air horn blaring.

In his 15 years as a paramedic with more than 10,000 calls, Belshe had seen maybe 15 gunshot victims; about half were fatalities. He felt his adrenaline spike. Shootings — and calls involving children — were the hardest.

Once at the salon, Ladd made sure that his men would be safe. Respected for his decisiveness, he surveyed the scene and relayed the information to the dispatcher who was coordinating the response.

Hooper gathered two bags, one containing an oxygen tank and the other breathing equipment for patients, from the back of the fire engine. He assumed what lay ahead would be bad.

He stood in the entrance to the salon, and he stopped for a second. His eye darted around. Earlier that day, his wife had told him she was going to get her nails done, and he didn't know where. He didn't see her or recognize anything she might have been wearing amid the bodies, the blood and shell casings crowded by stylist chairs, sinks, counters and partitions. He put down his bags and joined Belshe.

As Belshe finished checking the victims, the enormity of the shooting weighed upon him. Of the eight in the salon, only two were still alive. He turned his attention to them.

"Ed, I need the airway bag and the oxygen," he spoke loudly over the din of arriving ambulances, circling helicopters and radio chatter.

Hooper handed him the hand-operated breathing mask and went to get another bottle of oxygen. A few minutes after he returned, he helped escort a woman out of the salon. She had been in a small room in the back, the door closed. He tried to reassure her and handed her a towel to put over her head. He didn't want her to see what they would be walking through.

"You're doing good," he told her as he walked backward, leading her toward the front door. Once outside, he removed the towel. Her friends were waiting for her.

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