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For Ind. Responders, Vivid Memories of November 2005 Tornado Remain

Nov. 05--Most emergency responders that went to Eastbrook Mobile Home Park on the night a tornado hit in November 2005 are still in the field.

Nate Stoemer, who worked with AMR, is now a captain at the Scott Township Fire Department. He said everyone from AMR who responded still works -- there's an emergency room nurse, paramedics in other counties, some even firefighters. A few emergency responders from other agencies left because it was difficult to move past what they had seen.

Stoermer said when he left Eastbrook mid-morning that Sunday, he went home and drank to fall asleep. He became depressed. He drank more and had suicidal thoughts. His wife told him he needed to see help.

It took years "of work," he said.

"Now I'm one of the biggest proponents of seeking help ... for emergency services personnel because I've been there," he said. "It can be talked about without hurt and pain."

Stoermer knows people are still dealing with their demons 10 years later. He wishes he would have sought help sooner.

"It's hard telling to see where I would be if I didn't" seek help, Stoermer said. "I may not be here now."

A few years after the tornado, he and other AMR paramedics who worked that might got together to build a house for Habitat for Humanity. They didn't know who the house was for, just that it was for a tornado victim.

"We really didn't talk about the tornado -- but we knew we were there for a reason and a purpose," Stoermer said. "It was kind of a closure moment for us."

Annie Groves, who was Vanderburgh County's chief deputy coroner at the time, said retrieving bodies was "physically and mentally demanding."

Most of the first responders received counseling. The coroner's office didn't.

"I told my staff that what you're going to have to realize is you're going to hear for months, 'We want to thank the fire department, the police department, the first responders,' and I said, 'They will never thank the coroner's office,'" Groves said. "The ones that deal with it to this day will never thank us. It's just how it is."

Groves was told coroner's office employees didn't need counseling because being around death is part of their job.

"I said 'We're not used to that many at a time,'" Groves said. "It was overwhelming ... however, we were so busy doing our job that it took like a week to realize just what had happened. Then it hit ... like 'Wow.'"

They counseled themselves in their office.

Greg Gordon, a psychotherapist and clinical director of the Southwest Indiana Critical Incident Stress team, said anyone can experience trauma, and "everyone has limits." If a person feels emotionally overwhelmed or helpless, then they've been through trauma.

He said "it's so bogus" that counseling wasn't sent for everyone.

"Just because you deal with death, that doesn't wash because everybody can overwhelmed," Gordon said. "They certainly overwhelmed their resources."

The Red Cross asked him to come and talk to emergency workers on Nov. 6, 2005, as part of a critical stress debriefing. But they scheduled meetings later at fire stations and local churches.

"When the coping doesn't begin pretty early, it can set in concrete so that it affects every aspect of a person," he said. "The emotional consequences of a disaster are usually more widespread and longer lasting than the physical consequences."

"I'm not the same person that I was (Nov. 6). I'll never be that person again," Stoermer said. "It took lots of therapy. It took lots of talking."

"Are there scars? Absolutely," Stoermer said. "I think there was guilt that we couldn't save everybody. But I think we knew it was beyond our control."

Stoermer said emergency responders are supposed to be the strong ones in communities. They help people.

"All my friends are strong people and I'm a strong person, but you can only fill your cup so full before it overflows, and my cup was overflowing and it was time to dump the cup out," Stoermer said. "We don't wear capes, we're not superheros. We're not immune to anything. We're humans -- we have the same feelings and emotions that everybody else does."

Copyright 2015 - Evansville Courier & Press, Ind.

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