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Tragedy led this Maine fire crew to upgrade equipment that saved a life days later

When crews were unable to save a 9-year-old trapped under a tree in July, the fire chief made three phone calls, including one that would save a life days later.

STANDISH, Maine — Last July, Chaplain Cheryl Cuddy was the first person Standish Fire Chief Rob Caron called after his team wasn't able to save a 9-year-old girl who was trapped in a car under a tree that had fallen on it during a sudden storm.  

"We sometimes just need a moment just to compose ourselves, the department needs to. It might be coffee, it might be jokingbecause that's part of being able to process what they need toand as you said, they might get another call in an hour for situations that would shake us for months," Cuddy said about her role as a chaplain for Standish and Westbrook.

From that scene in July, Caron made three phone calls. One of those calls saved the life of someone else pinned in a car just days later.

It began with a letter

"I started out with Standish Fire-EMS on Oct. 10, 1990, at the age of 15," Tashia Pinkham started reading aloud a letter sent to her from her fire chief. 

Pinkham, the town manager in Standish, knows her crews need support, sometimes emotional, and other times financial. 

"To say we have seen a lot over the years is an understatement," the letter continued. 

When Pinkham read the letter, she knew she wanted to share it. She wanted others in the community, in fire service in other towns, and really anyone who read it to know that PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is real for first responders and that there is help. Which is why Pinkham reached out to NEWS CENTER Maine to share the story of what happened last summer in her town. 

Staying strong

Chief Caron began his career with Standish Fire-EMS at a time when tough exteriors were almost mandatory in the job. It took many years, but Caron recognizes now how important giving his team—and himself—time to process scenes can be to their own survival. 

That includes the scene he and a game warden were first to respond to at a campground last July. 

"Our first call to that location was for a tree down on a vehicle with wires down and somebody in the vehicle," Caron explained, saying he had no idea exactly what he was showing up to until he arrived and saw fire trucks desperately trying to get anywhere near the scene. 

With so many trees down, they couldn't get close. Crews grabbed what they could and started running. 

"We had to take the stuff off the truck carrying [it] a half mile over debris through the woods with spare hoses and all that stuff, so combined it's probably about 800 pounds of weight we ended up carrying," Caron said.

Hallie Oldham, a 9-year-old girl, was pinned in her family's car under a massive tree. People at the campground, including her family, were desperately working to cut the tree with chainsaws, while firefighters worked to fire up an old gas-powered generator to get their extrication equipment working. It was all an uphill battle. 

"Everything that could've gone wrong for us that day went wrong," the chief said. 

Hallie Oldham died at the campground, and Chief Caron hit his breaking point.

"We carried her to the ambulance, and I kind of just remember grabbing her foot and apologizing because we weren't able to do anything, and at that moment, I just lost it," Caron said.

"Has that ever happened on a call to you?" I asked. 

"Never," he said. "Never have I ever cried on a call in front of the guys until then. I'm supposed to be the leader. I'm supposed to be the one to not do that, to support them."

From crisis to control

The chief made three phone calls from that terrible scene. One to his wife, asking her to come be with him, and one to the town chaplain, asking to assemble the crisis team and meet the crew back at the station. 

His third call was to order all new battery-powered equipment. 

"As it turned out, the day [the new equipment] arrived, which I believe was nine days later, we actually used them," Caron said. 

That afternoon nine days later, a call came in for a head-on collision with a woman trapped under a dump truck. People on the scene had already pulled her two-year-old daughter from the back seat. 

"For something that normally, I would say, would take us a good half hour to 40 minutes, we were 13 minutes start to finish with those [new] tools to extricate this patient that we had no expectations to survive," the chief explained. 

"I don't think I had another hour to be on this Earth," Rebecca McVety said. 

She was that patient.

"I did get a head injury, something went through my head, we don't know what it was, but it missed my eye. And I broke my legs," McVety said.

She not only survived, but she also came back to thank the crew that undoubtedly saved her life and protected her daughter.  

McVety still has a lot of recovery ahead of her, but she has a future because of that new equipment that arrived at the Standish Fire Department just hours before her crash. 

Chief Caron said he often thinks about Hallie Oldham. He said so in that letter to his town manager.

Now, Caron also thinks about that third phone call from the scene, and the good that came from it.

"There's no doubt in my mind that this young lady is only alive today because a beautiful little 9-year-old princess didn't make it," he wrote in his letter. 

Keeping Kindness for Hallie

Hallie Oldham's family has started a Facebook page to honor the nine-year-old girl. It's called "Keeping Kindness for Hallie." The page reads as follows: 

"In memory of Hallie, we are engaging in random acts of kindness and handing out a memory card of Hallie. If you receive a card, perhaps in time you could pay it forward with an act of kindness. 

This group was created to share your act of kindness given or received and post where you are from. Our goal is to spread kindness around the world, just like Hallie would have wanted."

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