Peter Houlahan
Peter Houlahan

Editor's note: Peter Houlahan is an emergency medical technician (EMT) and Southern California native who was among the first responders to the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Here is his story.

I wish I could tell you that being a first responder EMT at Sandy Hook Elementary School that day gave me a deeper understanding of what happened there.

I would like to say the sight of terrified first-graders fleeing their school gave me some special insight into the nature of gun violence in America, that seeing SWAT team members weeping as they left the building afforded me a unique perspective on the mental health system, or that being in a fire station among room after room of heartbroken parents sobbing for their lost children qualifies me as an expert on grief and loss. It does not.

In the end, there will be no understanding what happened at Sandy Hook. Nothing I can say here will deflect your sorrow or resolve the emotional dissonance of conflicting images and ideas: an elementary school and a SWAT team; a six-year-old child and a Bushmaster assault rifle.

The best I can do is tell you what it looked like and how it felt to be there. How it starts with a vague and somewhat ominous Emergency Medical Services (EMS) dispatch to a neighboring town during an otherwise quiet day crew shift.

Redding communications dispatching R50 day crew, R50 respond to the intersection of Hopewell Woods Road and Poverty Hollow for police escort to the incident. Time out 10:03.

That everything becomes very quiet and narrowly focused in an ambulance when you see the police cars waiting for you at the town line, the chief of police standing in the road to quickly brief you: "This is what we got: Mass casualty, Sandy Hook Elementary School and they are screaming for ambulances. I've got two sharpshooters here, follow us in."

That in the eight minutes it took us to get to Sandy Hook, my partner and I briefly ran through scenarios, talked about what equipment we might need, but mostly kept our thoughts to ourselves. A text I do not remember sending to my wife read: "Going to something really bad. Sandy Hook Elementary School."

I can tell you that for the first few minutes after arriving on scene I was outwardly preparing for the worst while something inside me was still holding out that it might not be that bad. A hunter who put a stray bullet through the window by accident. A hostage situation that will end uneventfully. A hysterical overreaction to a student who brought a gun to school.

But at Sandy Hook, the awful reality of what we were dealing with unfurled itself in a rapid series of moments and images that come back to me now only in sound bites and still photographs: The Newtown firefighter who grabbed my sleeve and told us we were headed into a shooting with "kids down," the frightened children running away from the building as we were running toward it, passing a woman who had been shot, cresting the hill into a parking lot swarming with automatic weapons and body armor and being told to get ready, that we would be next to go into a building where 20 to 30 people, mostly children, had been shot down inside.

A person who experiences tragic events will inevitably look back and try to identify that last moment where there was still hope - that instant before all was lost and their life changed forever. For the EMS teams staged in front of Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, that moment came when the Newtown EMS captain ordered us to stand down, that there was no one left to help, no one left alive.

I would never pretend that my experience comes anywhere close to that of the first responders who went inside the buildings at Sandy Hook Elementary School that day. Nor would I insult those who lost loved ones by trying to compare it to their unimaginable grief. 

But if you work EMS, it is understood that there will be calls that will break your heart, that you will, inevitably, see things you wish you had not. When we do get a call like that, the only thing we have to hold on to is the knowledge that we were part of the solution and not the problem, that we did something to help, that we gave that patient the best shot she had.

Sandy Hook took that away from us and left us forever standing helplessly in front of a silent elementary school on a cold December morning with nothing but a howling emptiness some of us may never entirely fill.