Tue. Apr 23rd, 2024

First responders at Texas border are traumatized from pulling dead bodies from the Rio Grande

By 37ci3 Feb26,2024



EAGLE PASS, Texas – A crisis in the United States US-Mexico border since last year, it has poured into the fire trucks and ambulances of a small Texas town.

First responders at Eagle Crossing say they are overwhelmed and increasingly traumatized by what they see: parents drowning or dying, children barely clinging to life after trying to cross the Rio Grande.

The emotional strain on firefighters and EMTs has grown so high that city officials have applied for a state grant that would bring additional mental health resources for frontline workers.

“This is an unprecedented crisis,” said Eagle Pass Fire Chief Manuel Mello. “It’s nothing close to what I experienced while I was on the line. It’s a whole different beast.”

While crews are still sipping their morning coffee and preparing for what the day will bring, the first calls for help usually come from the three stations in Eagle Pass, firefighters said.

Parents with young children may be at risk of drowning or becoming trapped on islands between the United States and Mexico surrounded by the Rio Grande’s violent currents.

On some shifts, firefighters with the Eagle Pass Fire Department can spend three to five hours in the water helping migrants cross the river or recover drowning bodies.

“It’s something we’ve never been through,” said Eagle Pass native Marcos Kypuros, a firefighter and EMT for two decades. “It was hard to keep up with everything else we were focusing on.”

Eagle Pass has become ground zero in recent months for a brutal border crisis that is equal parts political and humanitarian.

As hundreds of thousands of people attempt to illegally cross the border near Eagle Crossing every year, urban emergency workers are increasingly called upon to perform difficult and often dangerous rescues or recover bodies. They do so while dealing with other emergencies in the city of 28,000 and in sparsely populated Maverick County.

“They see rotting bodies, drowning children. 2-month-old babies with half-opened eyes and mouths full of mud,” said Mello. “I know when I signed up I was told I was going to see it all, but not as many as these kids are seeing now.”

The volume of calls to the fire department increased last summer after Title 42, which imposed restrictions on asylum seekers hoping to enter the United States. was raised. On a typical day, the department might receive 30 calls, Mello said, but that number has doubled in recent months.

The added stress prompted one of his firefighters, still serving a required probationary period, to switch gears and change careers entirely.

After the record no illegal crossings in December, federal officials say that number dropped by half in January. The most noticeable decrease was in the price US Border PatrolDel Rio sector including Eagle Pass.

Kypuros said the steady increase in crossings over the past year has taken a toll on first responders who are not registered for this type of work.

“It was just rough when we were recovering four or five, six, seven bodies a day,” he said.

As the number of emergency calls on the border increased last fall, so did the number of sick days firefighters requested, according to the fire chief.

“I try to leave it all at work, I don’t take it home with me, but it’s very difficult,” Kypuros said. “Sometimes it’s hard to deal with.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. It has not been announced when the funds requested by the city will be provided.

Abbott crossed the border after a record number of attempted crossings last year state immigration enforcement efforts. Last week, he announced that 1,800 members of the Texas National Guard were being deployed to Eagle Pass to prevent illegal crossings.

Abbott, a Republican, installed razor wire near the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass as part of the enforcement action and previously placed buoys in the river to prevent crossings.

Firefighters treated cuts and open wounds from people trying to climb the concertina wire, Kypuros said. Garcia added that sometimes local hospitals are so overwhelmed with patients from the border that the wait for a bed is as long as two hours.

While thousands of people without a path to U.S. citizenship wait in squalid, makeshift camps on the Mexican side of the border, others risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones by attempting the dangerous river crossing over the Rio Grande.

Harish Garcia, who worked as an Eagle Pass firefighter EMT for three years, still can’t shake the memory of the drowning mother and her young daughter. Garcia’s crew, including a firefighter who has a daughter the same age as the little girl, loaded the two into an ambulance, but said it was too late.

When the crews returned to the station, some called their families. Others remained silent, Garcia said.

“Unfortunately, the calls will continue to come in after that, so we can’t go on much longer,” he said months later. “We just have to let it go and move on to the next call.”

Garcia and Kypuros say they’ve lost count of how many bodies have been recovered in recent months. Most are found after unsuccessful attempts to cross the river, but other calls have taken fire crews into South Texas’ rough brush, where dehydration and exposure can be fatal.

David Black, a psychologist who has worked with California law enforcement for more than 20 years, said witnessing the death of a child is often the most traumatic experience a first responder can experience. Without a strong support system both at work and outside of work, this stress can eat away at them.

“We give our worst-case scenarios to first responders,” he said. “If you have children, it can affect how you view your own family.”

Agents and other federal workers with U.S. Customs and Border Protection already have access to in-house mental health resources as Eagle Pass awaits approval of a state grant.

The services, which include local clinicians and field psychologists, are part of a larger effort to “increase resilience and encourage our colleagues to seek help when they need it,” said CBP Acting Commissioner Troy Miller.

Despite the uncertain nature of the border crisis and political tensions between the White House and the governor’s office, Mello said he is optimistic that aid will come.

Until then, he knows the calls for help will be constant.

Morgan Chesky reported from Eagle Pass, Texas, and Alicia Victoria Lozano from Los Angeles.



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