Elad terror attack: First-person account from an EMS team head

As long as this is in writing, it’s much longer in reality. And it’s exhausting, it’s abrasive, it’s something I’ve never dealt with in my life.

 UNITED HATZALAH EMTs from Elad respond to the fatal terror attack in the city on May 5.  (photo credit: UNITED HATZALAH‏)
UNITED HATZALAH EMTs from Elad respond to the fatal terror attack in the city on May 5.
(photo credit: UNITED HATZALAH‏)

Sunday morning was relatively normal, after three incredibly busy days. The kind of days I have never experienced, and I hope that they will not happen ever again. I pray that this is so. It took three days for us to process the needless deaths and murders. Sunday morning was when we finally started digesting what happened on Thursday night.

Normal life and our routines stopped on Thursday evening, at 20:36, with a notification from the dispatch center, the same as the other hundreds and thousands of messages like it a year: “Ibn Gvirol street… in the square… a serious injury.”

I’m the team leader for United Hatzalah EMS responders in Elad and I myself am an EMT. The attack took place 500 m. from my house. I stopped the Independence Day video that I was in the middle of watching with my daughter, and responded to dispatch broadcasting on the local radio channel that I was “on my way.” I rushed outside and got on my ambucycle. I drove to the scene of the attack.

Nothing could prepare me for what happened next. At first, it didn’t seem particularly unusual. A man lay next to a car. I was unsure whether he fell or was run over.

But then it erupted. Before even approaching, I realized that something was strange, something was wrong about this incident that was unlike any other. The horrific injuries, the panic around a wide-spread area, the silence of the emotional shock that was tangible amid the chaos, all of these led to a sensation that something was terribly wrong. All of that was shattered when another volunteer’s voice came through on the communication device, “I have another victim lying here, and another unconscious, there are three CPRs currently underway. No, make that four CPRs... ”

 Israeli Security and rescue personnel work at the scene following an incident in Elad, in central Israel, May 5, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD) Israeli Security and rescue personnel work at the scene following an incident in Elad, in central Israel, May 5, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/AMMAR AWAD)

I stopped. We are trained on how to react in such a situation. Relax, take a step back, breathe deeply, and move on to scene management. Safety first, understand what’s happening, and report back to the dispatch center, coordinate efforts on the ground. Everything is happening so quickly. My goal was to create a sense of order amid all the confusion. There needs to be order otherwise all we are doing as first responders will simply add to the chaos.

Additional team members of mine arrive at the scene. I direct them to where they are needed.

With all of the difficulty involved, we put our own feelings aside, we put our humanity aside and we act. Procedures are getting done. We act, people are being treated for injuries. We act, CPRs are in progress. We act, people are being transported from the scene to safe locations, onto ambulances as they arrive. We act, additional personnel are called in for backup. Report, evacuation, report, evacuation, repeat.

AN AMBULANCE arrives near me, I assist in loading one of the injured on board, and another person gets on. Within a moment of the ambulance filling up, its doors close, and starts driving to the hospital, as another ambulance pulls up to take its place.

After all of the injured are cared for and transported, I turn my task and my team’s effort to collecting the equipment which has been strewn about the park, medical bags, oxygen tanks, Bag-valve-masks lying on pathways that moments ago were filled with revelers celebrating the holiday.

I move from area to area, from volunteer to volunteer, a glance in their eyes to see that they are okay. I hand out tasks because there is a need for order, for structure, for us to continue moving in order to be able to later process. The incident isn’t over when the injured are transported. We now shift focus from treating physical injuries to treating psychological and emotional ones. Both internally among our team of first responders and externally among those who witnessed the attack psycho-trauma support is required. Teams of psychological first responders, psychiatrists, therapists, and social workers, from our Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit, have arrived on the scene and have begun working with those in need of support. For many of the first responders involved, this was the first time that they had responded to a terror attack.

Later, I needed to speak to the spokesperson’s department and update them on what happened. Then I needed to answer questions from the police and the security services.

THERE IS not even a moment of silence. Anyone who has not experienced something like this firsthand will have difficulty understanding the immediate switch that all of us were required to make as first responders. My quiet city, the park below my house, has become a place of murder where lives were lost during an Independence Day celebration. Dozens of flashing LED lights, red lights, blue lights and elite police units take over the space and put the neighborhood on lockdown as a manhunt began for the perpetrators.

And it didn’t end... We needed to arrange an initial resilience meeting for our volunteers, a debrief to let them vent their feelings and frustrations so that we can hopefully prevent the onset of acute stress reactions. Dozens of media outlets arrived and wanted to interview us. Then, after those were done we needed to assist community members with their own resiliency and went building by building to console neighbors who live in close proximity to the park and witnessed the attack.

By now it was well passed 2:00 a.m.

When things calmed down at the scene itself, it came time to begin arrangements for two funerals of neighbors and friends and to coordinate the third with another branch of United Hatzalah, as we took it upon ourselves to provide medical coverage at the funerals of those slain. It was also deemed important to send a small gift, a token of our appreciation from the organization to the volunteers who responded to the incident so that they would have a good feeling going into Shabbat.

I also needed to prepare for Shabbat myself and for my own family after having been up all night long. My family needed some comfort and a sense of security as well. My children were also exposed to what had happened.

Over the course of the weekend, all through Shabbat, the city was in a heightened state of tension where every little thing made everyone jump. On Saturday night, we held a second resiliency meeting for first responders, even the mayor came to speak.

As long as this is in writing, it’s much longer in reality. And it’s exhausting, it’s abrasive, it’s something I’ve never dealt with in my life.

But on Sunday morning, when sanity began to push away the madness, I began to digest what happened and I realized that alone, I had no chance to swim through and survive this flood. It is only thanks to my fellow responders both in my community and throughout the rest of the organization that I was able to keep my head above water over the last few days. I learned just how much we all need one another, both as fellow first responders, as well as a family and as a community.

The writer is married and has four children. He lives in Elad with his family and works for the municipality. He also serves as the local chapter head of United Hatzalah for the city and has been involved with the organization as a first responder for more than a decade.