When police, paramedics and firefighters report for duty, they know not what their shift will bring.
Shootings, car accidents, fires, family violence, brawls, armed robberies, gangland hits, suicides — those who run toward danger come to expect the unexpected. Their training and professionalism carry them through the challenges of the day. Most of them have probably seen it all and developed a thick skin as a result.
But some incidents are so unfathomably awful that they can’t be unseen; some events are so shocking that they pierce even the toughest mental armour.
This is what happened last week in east-end Montreal. Police cars and ambulances were called to a tidy brick cottage in Tétreaultville that offered little hint of the monstrosities waiting inside.
Two children were dead. Hugo, 7, and Élise, 5, were apparently killed by their father’s hand. Jonathan Pomares was dead, too, having taken his own life.
A child’s death is difficult to bear at any time, let alone two siblings at once. The grief of a mother, who returned home to make the macabre discovery, must have been heartbreaking to behold.
But the horror this father inflicted on his son and daughter, the manner of their deaths, is said to have been so appalling that first responders were immediately relieved of duty and sent for counselling. What they witnessed last Tuesday evening will probably haunt them for the rest of their days.
Many questions are swirling around this grisly crime. How could a seemingly cheerful father resort to such violence? And why? The fact the husband and wife were in the midst of a split provides a clue, though not an excuse. Could — or should — anyone have seen this coming? Reports suggest the father had recently been hospitalized for psychiatric care.
This is the kind of soul-searching that needs to happen to prevent other such “family dramas” — the completely inadequate euphemism for prolicide being used in this case.
But another matter we must not overlook is: What happens to the emergency responders who showed up to try to help? What toll will this take on their lives? And what can be done to help them recover?
Stéphane Smith, a spokesperson for Urgences-Santé, said four paramedics and two supervisors were present that night and are getting help. That’s on top of the police officers and the dispatcher who took the 911 call.
“They’re trained to intervene in these kinds of situations,” Smith said. “During the event, they go in and do their job. It’s afterward that it catches up to them.”
Urgences-Santé has a permanent psychologist on staff. But in 2018, it also set up a peer-counselling program, training paramedics to be able to debrief other paramedics.
“Sometimes it’s much easier to confide in a colleague who knows what you’re going through, rather than a psychologist or another professional,” Smith said.
The peer-counselling system was activated last week as a first line of defence. And more help is available over the short and long term, Smith said. Urgences-Santé is also participating in a study with experts from l’Université de Montréal to evaluate whether rapid support can mitigate the fallout from incidents like these.
Many lives can be touched by such tragedies, he added, including the spouses and family members of the first responders who experience symptoms of post-traumatic shock.
“Every person responds differently,” Smith said.
Some want to talk; others clam up. Some experience nightmares and flashbacks; others can’t sleep a wink.
For first responders, psychological distress is an occupational hazard. But the harm risks spreading outward in concentric circles from the house on Currateau St. over the coming days, weeks, months and years.
This chilling crime bears many similarities to another that shook Quebec.
Guy Turcotte murdered his two children in 2009 while in the process of separating from his wife, Isabelle Gaston. Turcotte stabbed Olivier, 5, and Anne-Sophie, 3, a total of 46 times, but failed in his much less gruesome attempt to take his own life.
Patrick Bigras of the Sûreté du Québec was the officer who discovered the bloodied corpses of the two children in their beds. He had to take two months of leave in the immediate aftermath. Last year, he took leave again. In July, he took his own life.
It is impossible to know exactly what pushed Bigras to suicide. But those who knew him said the brutal slayings cast a long shadow over his life.
His death must be a warning about the risks emergency responders face every day and a reminder that they need support, sometimes long after the fact.