Book Excerpt: Blood, Sweat, Tears and Prayers (Part 1)

Chief Gary Ludwig gives a dramatic account of his long career as a paramedic and firefighter in the violent neighborhoods of St. Louis and Memphis

Editor's Note: Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Prayers: Firefighting and EMS from Some of the Toughest Streets in America, the first book by Chief Gary Ludwig, is a dramatic account of his 34 year career in two of the statistically most violent cities in the United States - St. Louis and Memphis. This excerpt of a tragic homicide is posted in two parts. Part 1 takes the reader from the dispatch of the call to the ambulance. Part 2 continues the horrific call to the hospital and the lasting impact of this call on Chief Ludwig and his colleagues.

The unfortunate are some of the most horrific things I’ve witnessed. Some I will describe in this book, others I don’t want to think about. Being a firefighter and paramedic leaves you many times with haunting dreams that wake you in the middle of the night. Sometimes you see scenes in your head over and over. Sometimes you wake in a cold sweat. On many occasions you find yourself driving down the street with your mind totally immersed in some of the horrific scenes you’ve seen. Sometimes you find yourself sitting at the stoplight engrossed in things you wish you never witnessed. Someone has to tap their horn behind you to get you moving.

Sometimes I wish my brain could forget the things my eyes have seen. Especially the children! That’s what hurts the worst, and what keeps me awake sometimes at night. It’s the disastrous things that happen to innocent children who have no control over their destiny that made me rush home to hug my own children when they were small. Some nights they got an extra hug and a stronger and longer squeeze than they expected. They knew something was wrong, but they were too young to realize.

One particular call where I had to “extra hug” my children after I got home occurred on July 17, 1985. Jim McDonald and I, the paramedic-captain who handled the other side of St. Louis, were eating at one of our favorite places on the south side. Our favorite restaurant was Hodaks, a small restaurant and bar on the near south side of St. Louis at the intersection of Gravois and McNair.

As we were just sitting down to some of the best chicken I have ever eaten, our portable radios crackled with information about a shooting in the 4900 block of Magnolia. The dispatcher had the mother on the phone, who had requested three ambulances for three children who had been shot. At one point during the phone conversation, she admitted she had shot them. The dispatchers believed the call was a false alarm since the caller was calm during the entire phone conversation. However, it immediately raised alarm bells in my head. Any mother who would shoot her three children would most likely be mentally unstable, and might very well be calm on the phone. I suspected there was a good probability the call was real.

Jim and I raced to the scene, where we arrived with the first police car and ambulance. At the time of the incident, St. Louis did not have the staging policy for shooting events described earlier.

As I got out of my car, I could see a small boy of about four years old standing at one of the windows of the four-family brick apartment building, screaming out the window. I thought, My God, my fears are realized. This is a real call.

Scurrying as fast as I could, I helped the ambulance crew by grabbing some of the medical equipment and carrying it into the building and up the stairs to the second-floor apartment. As we entered the worn, green tile in the hallway and neared the wooden steps leading to the second floor, we passed the boy, who was still screaming and crying at the window of the landing halfway up the stairs to the second floor. Unfortunately, I had seen the look in this boy’s eyes many times, and in many situations. I knew what awaited me through the doorframe of the apartment would be horrifying.

My instinct was correct. The first thing I saw was a blonde-haired girl about the same age and size as the boy, lying on her stomach in the front room. There was a small pool of blood around her head and it tinted part of her hair red. She was unconscious, and thankfully didn’t know what was going on around her.

The police officer entered the apartment before us and was leading a young, handcuffed woman into the hallway as we were walking in. She had a blank stare on her face and looked straight ahead with no expression as she closely passed me. I took a quick glance and saw two more children lying in the middle room, which is a bedroom. Both also appeared to be shot in the head, as blood similarly dyed their blonde hair. I stood there for a second. I couldn’t help but think they looked like my daughter, who was about the same age. My daughter also has blonde hair.

I immediately radioed the dispatcher requesting two more ambulances, since we had three critical victims. The two paramedics who responded on the initial ambulance began triaging. We had three females ages 1, 4, and 7, all shot in the head with a rifle. As I continued to stare in disbelief at these children who’d been shot for no apparent reason, my anger rose. How could any person do this to children who were probably doing nothing but playing? How could a mother do this to her own children? I’d seen too many gunshots to the head, and knew that since they were unconscious, with brain matter showing, their chances of surviving were about zero.

Our first priority as paramedics is to establish an airway and make sure air is flowing through that airway. We have a saying, “Air goes in and out. Blood goes round and round. Anything different is bad.” It sounds simple, but it’s so true.

All three children were shot in the head and unconscious. All three were still alive, but were obviously in critical condition.

Gunshot wounds to the head usually do not have a good outcome. Either the person dies, or they suffer some type of serious brain damage. But I have come to learn in 37 years and some 3,500+ shooting calls that bullets can do strange things—including the cab driver I treated who was shot point blank in the face in a robbery attempt, and the bullet never entered his skull. It hit just to the right of the nose and below the eye, followed along the surface of the skull to the right side and exited by the ear without entering the skull. That cab driver certainly had his guardian angel riding with him that night.

Or the woman who was found by her husband with another man, and her husband shot her six times in the head with a .44 Magnum. I found her sitting in her car, calm and lucid, having a normal conversation with me as I was treating her. The shape of her head was so disconcerted that it did not look like a normal-shaped skull anymore, but she was conscious and having a normal conversation with me. She survived!

I started working on the 4-year-old girl, who was starting to show bruising and swelling around her left eye—a bad sign. She was having trouble breathing, and was in a fight for her life. As I tried to stabilize her, my thoughts returned to my daughter, and my anger rose again. But I couldn’t let my emotions take over. I needed to concentrate. I had to remain calm. I had to remain a professional. I wouldn’t do this child any good if I lost control.

I stabilized my emotions and focused on saving her life. Shortly thereafter, Susan, a police officer whom I had known for a while, leaned over and asked, “Gary, is there anything I can do?” I looked up to see her red hair and friendly face.

“What the hell happened?” I asked.

Susan said the mother shot her children because she was worried about going on welfare. What? She’s worried about going on welfare? No way! Now I got angry again! Who the hell shoots their own flesh and blood because they’re worried about going on welfare? I’d heard that people who plead mental insanity on criminal charges spend a little time in a mental hospital, and then get released. I’m not a mental health expert, but it’s hard for me to comprehend that they can’t rationalize between right and wrong—especially when you murder your three children. I would think maternal instinct would override insanity, but I am neither a psychiatrist nor a psychologist.

The first ambulance took off with one of the girls while Jim and I remained on the scene trying to stabilize the others. There wasn’t much we could do except maintain the airway and make sure they kept breathing. They needed an operating room as soon as possible. Just like if your arm or foot was subjected to trauma, the brain swells when damaged. But unfortunately, the skull acts like a sealed container, and the brain has nowhere to go when it swells.

Eventually, almost simultaneously, the two other ambulance crews arrived. I told them over the radio not to bring a stretcher—just bring a backboard and we’ll strap them down. The girls were small enough we could carry them down the stairs, so it would be a waste of time to try and bring a stretcher upstairs. We needed to get them to a hospital as soon as possible.

I picked one of them up. As I looked at her face, I couldn’t help but wonder what moments of pure panic she went through after her sister was shot and she saw her mother coming toward her with a gun. Maybe she was the first to be shot and never saw it coming. The way the children were scattered around the apartment, it looked like they were running to get away. This poor child! As I had done many times before, I said a short, silent prayer to myself: “God, please grant this child healing and peace, and allow her to live the life that she should have enjoyed.”

As I headed down the steps with the child strapped to the backboard, me at the head and another paramedic at the other end, I noticed that the small boy who was originally crying at the landing on the stairway was gone. I wondered who he was. Was he in the apartment? Why was he spared? Was he able to get away?

I reached the front door of the apartment building and saw lots of bystanders from neighboring homes who had gathered in front of the apartment building to see what the commotion was. When you look out your window and see three ambulances and multiple police cars, you know something big has happened. Behind me was one of the ambulance crews, and behind them was the other crew and Jim, who was carrying the last child to the ambulance on the backboard. As we headed down the sidewalk, I saw some of the women bystanders clasp hands over their mouths as they saw the small girls with bandages on their heads being whisked to the ambulances, and us trying to breathe for them by squeezing a bag to put air into their lungs. I’m sure they recognized the girls, and probably saw them playing outside in the past.

We got into the back of the ambulance and laid the backboard onto the stretcher. The other paramedic helped strap her down with the stretcher straps. While I maintained the airway, the other paramedic hooked up the heart monitor and got equipment to start an IV. The other paramedic slammed the back doors of the ambulance after announcing we were heading for Children’s Hospital, which is about five minutes away. I shouted at the paramedic, “Give us a nice, smooth ride!”

Continue in Part 2


Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Prayers: Firefighting and EMS from Some of the Toughest Streets in America
Lulu Publishing Services
opyright © 2015 by Gary Ludwig

Available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

About the Author

Gary Ludwig is recognized as a respected national fire and EMS author, public speaker, and consultant/expert who has managed two award-winning metropolitan EMS systems (Memphis and St. Louis). Chief Ludwig has over 37 years of fire, rescue and EMS experience - and over 35 years of experience as a paramedic. He currently serves as the fire chief of Champaign, Illinois and has a Master's of Science in Management and Business.  

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Get Paramedic Chief in your inbox

Thanks! You've been successfully signed up for the Paramedic Chief

Copyright © 2023 EMS1. All rights reserved.