It was dusk on a lonely Auburn back road. 

The forest pushed in on all sides, the sun was going down and at the edge of the scuffed and scarred pavement was a hideously mangled twist of metal that had once been a car. 

It was hard for me to believe that there was someone alive inside that tortured wreckage, but I knew it to be true. When I had arrived, the lady lost within that jumble of metal had been hollering out for help, a desperate sound and a chilling one. 

But now the lady — more of a girl, I suspected — had gone silent. The wreckage had her in its clenched fist and her only hope of survival was the army of six or seven men who were attacking the wreckage with exotic tools, a whole lot of muscle and that special variety of confident determination that seems to be exclusive to firefighters. 

The rescuers had come and for the moment, they were the only hope the young woman had of surviving this back road nightmare. They worked quickly, the sound of their machinery roaring across the land — but not TOO quickly. 

Extrication is an art. Do it right, you might save the day. Do it wrong, and instead of one victim on the back roads of Auburn, you may have several. 

“Something as simple as an airbag comes into play: on the steering wheel, passenger side dash and now side curtains, all of which can pop open when you’re in the car. Cutting the wrong thing can activate it,” says Paul Ouellette, a fire inspector who saw his share of extrications before becoming an investigator. “Bumpers today are on air shocks that can pop at any given moment and take out your knee caps. I’ve seen it. At an accident, it may have not popped yet and your standing in the wrong spot.”

With a victim crying out from a smoking, sizzling tangle of crushed metal, the urge is undoubtedly to hurry, but they don’t. They can’t. 

“Like fire fighting, safety procedures first,” Ouellette says. “Work fast, but know what can or will happen; know your limits and what you may face. Each incident is different. Prepare and train for it.” 

When you watch the fire crews work, it becomes apparent at once that they’ve trained for it, and trained hard. But knowing how to use the tools isn’t enough. Each crash is different and each requires a particular approach. 

Do you need a spreader? A cutter? Both? Is the mangled wreck stable enough or does it need to be blocked? Does the victim require life-sustaining attention even as you’re attempting to cut her free? Should she be covered with a tarp to protect her from debris and from the trauma of the nightmarish procedure going on around her? 

So on that Auburn back road, I was watching all of this and silently praying the woman could be reached in time to save her. Yet, the poor lady had something that was, in the moment, more powerful than prayer: She had firefighters. 

All my life, I’ve been in awe of these people and it was no different that early evening out there in the twilight. They would know which tool was needed to get this grisly job done. They would know how to best approach the job at hand to protect the victim and themselves. They would know just the right balance of caution and speed as they went about the crucial work of cutting, prying, peeling and ripping. They would be offering soothing words to the trapped and terrified victim, perhaps shouting to be heard over the rumble of machinery. 

I’m pretty sure that not once in 25 years of covering car wrecks did I ever come back to the newsroom to report that the victim died because firefighters were unable to extricate her. I’ve never once leaned over to say to a colleague, “Boy, the fire guys really bungled that extrication out there.” 

It happens, I am sure, but not often. 

To my eye, extrication is like surgery on a magnified scale. You are slicing and cutting and tearing into metal instead of human flesh, but the operation requires the same level of precision, and the ultimate aim is the same: The preservation of human life. 

And even as the firefighters train in the grisly art of extrication, the rules are constantly changing.  

“Tools have changed,” Ouellette tells me. “Procedures have changed. Cars have changed, with all cars made differently with all sorts of safety devices. New tricks of the trade also come into play as you learn shortcuts over the years that work easier.” 

And no two wrecks are the same. One crash might leave two squashed cars in the middle of the roadway, with downed power lines and spraying fluids adding to the fun. Another might send driver and vehicle tumbling off into the woods, where fire crews will have to go at it with battery-powered tools. 

Cars and trucks tumble down embankments, crash through the sides of buildings or end up submerged in a river or lake, men, women and kids trapped in both front and back and dying by the second. 

Grim and urgent work, the matter of extrication. As night fell on that long-ago scene in Auburn, I settled in for what I expected to be a long and difficult roadside surgery. It wasn’t, though. The firefighters had the young lady free of the wreckage and loaded into an ambulance in just under 10 minutes.  

The ambulance sped off with sirens wailing, headed for a Lewiston hospital. I had the remainder of the evening to write my story and to mull the display of skill and commitment I had just witnessed. 

The firefighters, though, they had no such luxury. Twenty minutes after clearing the crash site, there came a call of a house fire on the other side of the city, with possible tenants trapped and flames spreading toward neighboring tenements. 

A different variety of emergency that would require a completely different skill set. And off the firefighters raced to do what needed to be done. 

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