'The worst thing I've had to do'

Steve
Steve Bartlett
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Mountie's story shows delicate and trying work responding to tragedy

Trevor O'Keefe is likely kicking back and relaxing during the holidays this year.

Hopefully nothing major happened between his interview with The Telegram and the Yuletide, and the RCMP corporal doesn't need the festive downtime as much as last year.

The officer-in-charge of the Bell Island detachment was challenged professionally in the days before Christmas 2008.

An early morning fire in Lance Cove last Dec. 20 claimed the lives of three children - a brother and sister and their cousin - and O'Keefe was tasked with informing the mother of two of them.

RCMP Cpl. Trevor OKeefe was challenged professionally by a tragic fire on Bell Island just over a year ago.  Photo by Steve Bartlett/The Telegram

Bell Island -

Trevor O'Keefe is likely kicking back and relaxing during the holidays this year.

Hopefully nothing major happened between his interview with The Telegram and the Yuletide, and the RCMP corporal doesn't need the festive downtime as much as last year.

The officer-in-charge of the Bell Island detachment was challenged professionally in the days before Christmas 2008.

An early morning fire in Lance Cove last Dec. 20 claimed the lives of three children - a brother and sister and their cousin - and O'Keefe was tasked with informing the mother of two of them.

"I would say speaking to the mother, that was by far probably the worst thing I've had to do in my 10 years as a police officer, without a doubt," he told The Telegram in mid-December.

The fire shook the tight-knit communities which dot Bell Island, and the shock resonated across the province and country.

O'Keefe was one of many involved in responding to the tragedy and his story is an example of how difficult such work can be for emergency professionals.

He figures the time of year only added to the emotion.

"Everything was a little more heightened. It's supposed to be a happy time of year and then all of sudden this tragedy hits," he says.

For the officer, his involvement started shortly after the blaze broke out. He was asleep when he got the call.

"That's all I remember, and I was up on the bed, dressed and gone," O'Keefe recalls.

His professional instincts kicked in, he says, and he viewed everything as a police officer, not a civilian.

He would remain in Mountie mode for the next 20 hours, and for a total of 60 hours over the next three days.

"You know a job has to be done. You've got to get out and you've got to do it. You are so busy it kind of overrides your personal emotions. This is what has to be done. We've got to get out. We've got to get it done. You almost put (emotions) into the back of your mind to get the job done."

For O'Keefe, the hours were longer and harder because of the age of the victims and the delicate tasks required.

"If it's adults, you can always separate it, but when there are kids involved, it's a totally different game. It really is, with regards to how it makes you feel," he says.

The work was also physically tiring. It was a big ordeal and there was a lot to do.

Luckily, O'Keefe says, there were a lot of others who also logged long hours.

He lauds the members of his detachment as well as the staff at the hospital, the fire commissioner's office and the Bell Island volunteer fire department for their efforts during the tough time.

He uses the latter organization as an example of the commitment displayed.

"When all this happened (the firefighters) showed up and, when it came to go through the debris and clean up and all that, they were there alongside of us 20 hours a day for three days and they weren't getting a cent. That takes a special person, it really does. It's unbelievable what these guys do," says O'Keefe, who phoned Open Line radio show in the days after the tragedy to praise the emergency responders involved.

The effort put in during the Bell Island tragedy doesn't surprise Richard Murphy, past-president of the Newfoundland Association of Fire Services.

He says organizations such as fire departments, the police and ambulance services are prepared to respond at the sound of a phone 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

He adds a lot of people don't take in account those who respond to such incidents are human beings with families and dealing with tragedy affects them psychologically.

"It's very difficult when it is happening and sometimes it really doesn't hit home until hours, days or week after it happens. It's extremely difficult for these people," says Murphy, fire chief in Conception Bay South.

After the RCMP's role in the investigation wrapped up, O'Keefe says they talked about doing a stress debriefing at the detachment.

They opted not to, hoping the season would lift their spirits.

"It was so close to Christmas, we all chatted and said, 'You know what, the best stress relief for us is to go home to our families.' That's how we coped," says the father of two.

"It was just a relief to leave that and just go home and relax and enjoy the holidays."

O'Keefe says some of his staff have recently discussed last year's fire, as it is one of the most serious events they've been involved in as police officers.

Still, he doesn't think the tragedy has had any lingering effects on them mentally.

"We were the lucky ones when you look at these other families who had to go through all this," he says. "You can only imagine how tough it was on them. We were lucky. We got to go home to our families and some people just didn't have that option anymore."

sbartlett@thetelegram.com

Organizations: The Telegram, RCMP, Newfoundland Association of Fire Services

Geographic location: Bell Island, Conception Bay South

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Recent comments

  • Marion
    July 02, 2010 - 13:33

    Ten years ago at 4 in the morning I received the terrible news that changed my life forever..The RNC officer was so compassionate. Thinking back to that terrible night I can see now how he was struggling with his own emotions as He told me my only son had died. May God bless you Constable Corbett!!!

  • Sailor
    July 02, 2010 - 13:28

    Several years ago, when I was a firefighter, we responded to an MVA and all involved were teenagers and because it was a small community, I knew some personally and others by sight and or name. I found as well, that I froze for a couple of seconds but then your training kicks in and you do what has to be done and hopefully everything works out in the end. The psychological problems start if you don't at least talk to other people who know what you are going through and get it out in the open how you feel. The people in this story are to be commended for their handling of a very difficuly and tragic situation. Well done to everybody.

  • Kevin
    July 02, 2010 - 13:23

    Great story about a very tragic event. Most police officers never receive thank you's for the dangerous, hard and traumatic work that they have to deal with during their careers.

    Many thanks to the men and women of police enforcement. You have one of the toughest jobs out there.

  • Holly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:20

    Very commendable story Mr. Bartlett. It's great to see a story focused on the sacrifice that these professionals make for us everyday.

  • Emergency Worker
    July 02, 2010 - 13:18

    As a person who quite often sees a lot of trauma in the ER, I have great respect for all first responders, be it paramedics, police or fire. What I see sometimes can be tragic enough. They see and deal with stuff that for various reasons never even make it to the hospital.

    Kudos to you all for all your hard work and professionalism.

  • July 02, 2010 - 13:14

    I can't tell you how I feel reading back over this old news event right now, but to the mother, family and officer Trevor O'Keefe it must seem like yesterday. It will probably always seem like yesterday. But I sincerely hope it doesn't.

    I once received a knock on my door by two of my late father's comrades in the Force. I understand the eternal bond which forms and that part of your memory which never fades away.

  • Marion
    July 01, 2010 - 20:22

    Ten years ago at 4 in the morning I received the terrible news that changed my life forever..The RNC officer was so compassionate. Thinking back to that terrible night I can see now how he was struggling with his own emotions as He told me my only son had died. May God bless you Constable Corbett!!!

  • Sailor
    July 01, 2010 - 20:16

    Several years ago, when I was a firefighter, we responded to an MVA and all involved were teenagers and because it was a small community, I knew some personally and others by sight and or name. I found as well, that I froze for a couple of seconds but then your training kicks in and you do what has to be done and hopefully everything works out in the end. The psychological problems start if you don't at least talk to other people who know what you are going through and get it out in the open how you feel. The people in this story are to be commended for their handling of a very difficuly and tragic situation. Well done to everybody.

  • Kevin
    July 01, 2010 - 20:09

    Great story about a very tragic event. Most police officers never receive thank you's for the dangerous, hard and traumatic work that they have to deal with during their careers.

    Many thanks to the men and women of police enforcement. You have one of the toughest jobs out there.

  • Holly
    July 01, 2010 - 20:03

    Very commendable story Mr. Bartlett. It's great to see a story focused on the sacrifice that these professionals make for us everyday.

  • Emergency Worker
    July 01, 2010 - 19:59

    As a person who quite often sees a lot of trauma in the ER, I have great respect for all first responders, be it paramedics, police or fire. What I see sometimes can be tragic enough. They see and deal with stuff that for various reasons never even make it to the hospital.

    Kudos to you all for all your hard work and professionalism.

  • July 01, 2010 - 19:52

    I can't tell you how I feel reading back over this old news event right now, but to the mother, family and officer Trevor O'Keefe it must seem like yesterday. It will probably always seem like yesterday. But I sincerely hope it doesn't.

    I once received a knock on my door by two of my late father's comrades in the Force. I understand the eternal bond which forms and that part of your memory which never fades away.