They can’t shake the images from their minds.
Bodies and blood in a sea of chaos.
Off-duty Orlando police Officer James Hyland was working private security the morning of June 12 when he heard the call over his radio.
He drove his pickup truck into the parking lot as terrified patrons spilled out of Pulse nightclub about 2 a.m. He loaded the wounded into his truck, turning it into an improvised ambulance for fellow officers to bring victims to the hospitals, before going into the club to extract more people.
Hyland has seen carnage as an military police officer, but the images of bodies scattered on a dance floor still haunt him.
“It’s in your own backyard, you are not going to the fight. The fight has [been] brought to you.”
Everyone wants to talk to the first responders about it. What was it like to rush into an active shooting while others were desperately trying to get out? Family members worry if they’re OK.
They retell the stories over and over and reassure loved ones. But the only ones they can really talk to about what happened are those who also responded.
“You can only explain so much without actually being there. You can only describe so much without actually being there,” Orlando firefighter and paramedic Joshua Granada told CNN.
Granada was outside the club minutes after the first shots rang out with his longtime colleague Carlos Tavarez. Together, they carried 13 people to their ambulance, one by one, and rushed them to the hospital, making four trips in total.
“I know he was there, so all I have to do is mention this patient, or that person, and he knows exactly what I’m talking about,” Granada said. “I don’t have to go into much more detail that that.”
A ‘new era’ of occupational hazards
Trauma is an occupational hazard for any first responder; those involved in the Orlando shooting are no exception. As the first responders to the nation’s deadliest mass shooting, they’re learning the best way to move forward is to lean on each other.
The old rules to stay strong and silent no longer apply, Granada and others said.
“This is a new era. You have to be able to talk about it, what you see. You can’t keep that stuff bottled in, Granada said.
For Orange County Fire Rescue Chief Otto Drozd, it’s a matter of keeping his people up to the task as the demands of the job evolve to resemble scenes from a war zone.
“We are training as never before in line with law enforcement,” Drozd said. “On a normal day, we deal with gunshot wounds, accidents and all manner of very intense scenes. But when we get into the realm of active shooters and you have multiple deaths, multiple injuries, a lot of our transport units were transporting four patients at a time.”
He said many of those who responded to the Pulse shooting are expressing guilt over not being able to do more. He hopes it will be a once-in-a-lifetime call – but he’s not so sure.
“When I look at the face of our firefighters, you can tell they’ve been through a battle. They experience and show some of the signs that some of our soldiers experience during war,” he said.
“Coping is going to be a series of days, weeks, months because some of the ramifications of an event like this will play out over several months, if not years.”
It was all Granada could think about the week after the shooting – the first thing he thought about when he woke up and the last thing before he went to sleep.
“I couldn’t get back to my normal routine,” he said. “It was just really strange to have nothing else going on in your head other than this horrific act and you feel for the families and the victims, and everyone who has to go through this tragedy.”
And yet, life goes on, Tavarez said.
“Our world doesn’t stand still, either. Three days after this we had to practice because we have a competition coming up,” he said. “”For us it’s just a constant replay of that call and every other bad call. We see that too.”
Learning to cope
Even for veterans of the force like Hyland, it doesn’t get easier. But you learn to cope.
“There are times where I replay images in my head and it will keep me awake I little bit,” he said.
To get through it, Hyland reaches out to colleagues, past and present, or anyone else who will listen to him. “You just open up to anybody, anybody that wants to hear. You talk to them and they are very supportive.”
And, it goes both ways.
“I tell my guys I am always a phone call away. If you need somebody to talk to, if you ever need a shoulder to cry on.”
CNN’s Christopher Lett and Faith Robinson contributed to this report.