Nfld. & Labrador

After witnessing fatal crash, Kippens man calls for help for bystanders

A group of strangers suddenly come upon a crash scene they weren't prepared to witness — but they're more than willing to help.

If you come across a fatal scene, who is there to help you?

A 72-year-old woman was killed and her husband was severely injured in a crash near Pinchgut Lake on Dec. 11. (Colleen Connors/CBC)

A group of strangers suddenly come upon a crash scene they weren't prepared to witness — but they're more than willing to help.

One uses a jacket to keep a critically injured man warm, while at the same time shielding him from his deceased wife in the seat next to him.

Another calls 911.

Together, they wait for police, then go their own separate ways, without fully grasping the trauma that may follow them years down the road. 

"I believe I was the second person there. It's kind of hard to tell at times," said Vincent McGrath, one of several bystanders who stopped to help an elderly couple involved in a head-on collision on the Trans-Canada Highway.

They're not protecting the bystander who walks away and doesn't know he's injured until it's too late.- Vincent McGrath

It happened around 6:50 p.m. on Dec. 11, about one kilometre west of Pinchgut Lake.

"We noticed there was a lady who was deceased and a man who was severely injured. We tried what we could to keep him [comforted] and alert," McGrath told The St. John's Morning Show.

"Then we just sat waiting for the cops to show up. It seemed like they took an extra long time to show up … but what can you say?"

Help for bystanders

The consequences of psychological​ trauma reveals itself in nightmares, when you question what you did to help, and as it triggers other past events, he said. 

And McGrath would know, having served as a peacekeeper in Egypt — a tour that resulted in a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"But even I had a hard time dealing with that [crash] for a good few days," said McGrath, who lives in Kippens. 

He was so shaken by the lack of support for bystanders that he called the Corner Brook RCMP with his concerns.

An RCMP cruiser is positioned on a highway. (Paul Poirier/CBC )

"I asked them bluntly, I said, 'Well, the people who were there doing the job for over a half-hour, what were they offered?' Of course, it was nothing," McGrath said.

"They're not protecting the bystander who walks away and doesn't know he's injured until it's too late and his life starts falling apart and doesn't have the answers why."

The RCMP confirmed there's no process in place where officers would inform bystanders where they can seek help.

In a statement, the force said bystanders should seek out a health professional themselves for any psychological trauma.

It's human nature to help

Janine Hubbard, a registered psychologist in St. John's, said experiencing flashbacks, irritability and negative thoughts are normal after a traumatic event.

But if those symptoms continue beyond a month, Hubbard said, it could mean PTSD. 

Janine Hubbard is a registered psychologist and a director with the Association of Psychology Newfoundland and Labrador. (Submitted)

Besides bystanders, Hubbard said, volunteer firefighters and journalists are two other groups of concern.

Jeff Lavinge, a first-aid trainer with St. John Ambulance, said bystanders should stop and help but they need to get help for themselves.

Bystanders are critical in emergency responders determining what happened at the scene of a traumatic event. 

"They've seen it happen first-hand; we can get information from them, we can get history from them, and that information and history is passed along to paramedics, police and fire," Lavinge said.

Lavinge said calling 911 is the first step when arriving on the scene of a crash, then looking to see if there are any life-threatening injuries to people inside the vehicles. 

He recommends being prepared for accident scenes by taking first-aid classes and having equipment in your car like a blanket or medical kit.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show


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