'Tragic situations are holy ground': Fire chaplains recall Ooltewah interstate accident

'Tragic situations are holy ground': Fire chaplains recall Ooltewah interstate accident


HIXSON, Tenn. (July 5, 2015) -- The word “horrific” was frequently used to describe the nine-vehicle crash that killed six people on I-75 in Ooltewah, Tenn., on June 25.

Both Jim Lewis and Craig Paul use the same word to describe the scene where they were called to help on the night a tractor trailer plowed into eight vehicles near exit 11. Two children were among the casualties. Six additional people were injured.

“It was the most horrific car accident I’ve ever seen,” said Lewis.

When emergency personnel encounter human suffering and tragedy, they’re not always prepared for their own emotional response. On the night of the Ooltewah accident, Lewis and Paul were fire chaplains on site to support firefighters, medical personnel, police, and other responders.

“Even people who get used to this never get used to this,” said Paul. “We’re there to administer help, to offer comfort, and to let people know that what they’re going through is normal. It’s a normal reaction to an abnormal event.”

At his day job, Lewis is director of Christian formation and family ministry at Hixson United Methodist Church. Paul is a retired United Methodist pastor  who lives in Hixson.

Both are volunteer chaplains serving with the Dallas Bay Fire Department, the Tennessee Federation of Fire Chaplains, and the Southeast Regional Critical Incident Stress Management Team.

“For a lot of firefighters, this is one of the first times they’ve seen things like that, especially when it involves children,” Lewis said of the Ooltewah accident scene.

It’s his responsibility, Lewis said, to be available and “check in” with responders by asking questions to detect how they’re coping and if they have a spiritual connection, a church home or pastor that could be helpful later.

At the Ooltewah accident, Lewis didn’t offer a formal prayer for any of the responders, “but we seek to be a prayerful presence,” he said. “Tragic situations are holy ground, and we are seeking to be the hands and feet of Christ.”

Sometimes that means taking water to victims or responders or helping them find a bathroom, Lewis said. (The Tennessee Federation of Fire Chaplains provides a deluxe mobile bathroom trailer for certain emergency sites, such as the Ooltewah accident and the 2011 Bradley County tornadoes.)

Sometimes that means giving a person a hug or contacting their pastor to let him or her know a parishioner has been involved in an accident.

Frequently, more experienced responders will let Lewis or Paul know that a colleague is struggling. “They know we are chaplains. They know we are ‘God men,’” Paul said.

Since the Ooltewah accident, Lewis and Paul have been asked to join in five debriefings, scheduled by emergency personnel groups who were there on June 25. The debriefings help responders realize they’re “not in it by themselves,” but they also help volunteers like Lewis and Paul process their experiences in a tragic situation. “It’s our own therapy,” Paul said.

Being a pastor or being a chaplain often means going into places you don’t want to go, Paul said.

“I don’t always like going to hospitals or funerals or accident sites because I know something bad is going to happen,” he said. “But I really like how I feel when I leave -- knowing I've been the presence of Christ to someone -- trying to bring hope, peace, comfort, and strength in the midst of great tragedy.”