These Volunteers Rush to the Scenes of Deadly Accidents to Comfort Victims Left Behind

How heroes show up for people in their most vulnerable, loneliest moments.

march 2016 angels in america crisis response teamRon Haviv/VII for Reader's Digest

They wanted a midnight snack. Marlene Alatorre and her sister, Michelle Gonzalez, drove to a taco truck in the parking lot of a nearby strip mall on a June Saturday night in Los Angeles in 2012. Michelle, 22, sat in the car, while 19-year-old Marlene waited in line. Moments later, during a high-speed chase with police, a drunken motorist careened into the food stand at 62 miles per hour, killing Marlene and a second woman on impact.

A few miles away, Joe Avalos was settled in at home when his cell phone started buzzing. He was on call for a shift with the mayor’s Crisis Response Team (CRT), volunteers dispatched with police, firefighters, and other emergency responders to scenes of deadly accidents and crimes. He got in his car and rushed to the site.

The first thing Joe, 47, remembers is the screaming. Marlene’s mother, Holivia, was on the ground wailing in the intersection, a few feet away from the yellow crime-scene tape she was not allowed to cross. Joe kneeled next to her and introduced himself. “I’m going to do everything I can to help you get through this,” he said, speaking softly but firmly.

In the aftermath of horrific trauma, the CRT serves an unusual civic duty: supporting victims no one thinks about—friends and family left behind.

“We wake up at all hours of the night to be with people at the worst moment of their lives,” says Joe, who spent nine years as a volunteer before becoming the group’s director in 2013. “Victims feel helpless, confused, and out of control. We let them know that we’re there to be their advocate.”

In the incident that inspired the founding of the CRT, two couples had finished dinner at a San Pedro restaurant and were crossing the street when three of the people were hit by a speeding car. One died immediately; another, a few days later. The third was in critical condition for many days.

“[The ambulance crew members] did what they had been trained to do for the three victims who had been hit by the car,” explained LAPD captain Tim King in a letter he wrote a couple of weeks later, recruiting the group’s first volunteers. The police, he explained, fulfilled their responsibilities, protecting the crime scene and investigating the accident.

“Unfortunately,” King went on, “there was no one to respond and assist the uninjured party who had watched the terrible incident happen before his eyes. His needs, although not physical, were as important as the three victims who had been hit by the car.”

King suggested a solution: a volunteer group that could provide emotional assistance to victims’ loved ones. Nearly 24 years after the CRT was founded, groups of its 320 volunteers show up at almost every tragic death in the city of Los Angeles, from shootings to suicides to fires. Ready at a moment’s notice, they each  keep their car trunk stocked with a “war bag,” a duffel packed with items as diverse as blankets and teddy bears. Volunteers liaise between families and investigators, crossing crime-scene tape to share information and answer questions. They might notify schools that kids will be absent or give families referrals for therapy.

Their most important job is just being present. “Standing there and handing someone a bottle of water can be pretty powerful. Victims just want to tell us their story, especially if they witnessed [the incident],” says Joe, who credits the 20 years he spent as a social worker for teaching him how to listen. “We don’t have to say much. We call it sacred silence.”

Not long after Joe arrived to help Marlene Alatorre’s family that June night, another car pulled up. A young woman jumped out, trying to rush the crime scene—the daughter of the other woman killed. “‘She kept saying, ‘I was pissed off at my mom. I ignored her calls,’” Joe says. “Now her mother was lying several feet away from her under a white sheet.”

“It broke my heart,” he continues. “No matter how upset you are, let it go, because tomorrow, or even the next hour, is not promised to us.” The CRT, Joe says, “constantly reminds me how precious life is.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest