Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Dying on the Phone: The Georgia Floods

Nine people thus far have died in flooding in Georgia.  That is truly awful, and it certainly has made the news.  These are nine human beings who are not going home to their families.  That is worthy of our attention.  But does it always get it?

If nine people died in a random shooting at a mall, it would be all over the news.  We would be interrupting our regularly scheduled program for round the clock coverage.  If they died in a terrorist bombing in an American city, there would be nothing else in the news.  If they died in a bombing in an Iraqi market, it would be a passing mention. 

I am as guilty of making these distinctions as anyone else.  We care most about things closest to us and most violating of our expectations and world view.  The idea that flooding is dangerous is easier to accept than the idea that shopping in the United States is dangerous.  We already knew that shopping in Iraq was dangerous.  So I, like most of you, greeted the news out of Georgia with a click of my tongue.

Then, however, I read a story about one of the women who drowned.  She was literally on the phone with 911 as the water came into her car, which had been swept away in a flash flood and stuck in some trees.  She was on the phone when she died.  You can read about it online, and you can listen to the 911 call.

Maybe you shouldn't.

First of all, our society usually accepts that someone's death is a private thing, or at least a family thing.  There is a voyeuristic feeling to listening to someone dying, and I'm saddened that the authorities chose to release the call.

Second, 911 dispatchers will tell you that listening to someone in great distress is traumatic.  You know they need your help and you are powerless to help them.  While listening to the tapes after the fact is less distressing because we know how it is going to end and we don't expect that we will help the caller, it is still the witnessing of a traumatic death, just as surely as watching it would be.  None of us need that exposure.  Some of us will truly be disturbed by it.

The 911 call brings this victim out of the expected and into the unexpected.  We know that people die in floods.  We don't like to think about how exactly that happens.  We allow ourselves to think that it's just "one of those things."  But in reality, this week it was nine of those things, each one with its own story and its own traumatic truth.


Colleen said...

I heard it on the radio and I paused to listen to the end as I dropped my car off to get fixed. I wish I hadn't.

That poor 911 operator must be beside herself. That family must be traumatized...they don't need this.

There is benefit to anyone else in releasing it. Kids will hear it and they don't need to...I didn't need to hear it.

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