On a snowy Thanksgiving Day years ago, Gordon Orth was working alone when he was called to the scene of a T-bone accident.
When one of the cars flipped at the intersection of Scout Lake Road and the Sterling Highway, a man was ejected and pinned underneath the roof.
“When I got there all I saw was legs sticking out from underneath the car,” Orth said.
A young kid that stopped used a tow rope to pull the car up enough for Orth to reach in and pull the man out from under. Unresponsive and not breathing, Orth gave him a minute of CPR with no results.
Thinking the man was dead, he moved to treat the other victims.
“I had other patients there that were in critical condition,” he said. “I ended up walking away from that guy and I told the kid, ‘Grab a blanket out of the ambulance and keep an eye on him.’ The kid hollered over that he took a breath and we went back to working on him.”
The man survived the accident and in the process changed Orth’s career at Central Emergency Services, he said.
Often emergency personnel respond to calls and see the situation for what it really is — a futile effort to bring someone back, Orth said. Regardless, responders “make every attempt.”
Orth then knew why — the man, rehabbed from his accident, eventually came back to the fire station to thank him, and years later the two met again by accident while on the golf course.
“He was one of those ones that changed my career because that was one of the ones I thought, ‘Well, here’s the futile effort,’” he said. “... There’s always that little bit of hope and you continue on and try to do the best you can because there is a chance.”
Orth, CES assistant chief, retired from his post after a 28-year career with the department on April 30. The 50-year-old Soldotna resident took a job on the North Slope, but said leaving the department was one of the hardest things he has had to do.
“It’s like walking away from your family,” he said. “It’s very emotional. They have been my family for 28 years.”
CES Capt. Jack Anderson said about 100 people attended a retirement party the department threw for Orth.
“We had everyone who’s on-shift and off-duty come in and we had some presentations and everyone had a chance to stand up and share some stories and funny experiences they had with Gordon and wish him well in his retirement,” he said.
Anderson, who started with CES in 1998, said Orth would be missed.
“He definitely had an impact on the department, definitely had a hand in shaping what we were doing and I’m sure his presence will be felt around here for a long time,” he said.
Borough Mayor Mike Navarre spoke at Orth’s retirement party and said that he has been an asset to both CES and the borough in many ways.
“He’s someone who is a real professional and has helped out the service areas throughout the borough with his expertise and his assistance on various things, whether it’s with equipment to radios to operations,” he said. “He’s kind of helped me by troubleshooting and overseeing some of the smaller service areas. When we’ve had problems, I’ve asked him to take a look at it and make recommendations.”
Orth started working for the Kenai Peninsula Borough assessing department in 1985 and then switched to borough maintenance. He signed on as a volunteer at the Ridgeway-Sterling Fire Department and was hired on full time in 1990 with the Kalifornsky Beach Fire Department, which was eventually consolidated into Central Emergency Services.
He said the firefighter gig fit immediately.
A self-described adrenaline junkie, Orth said he used to live near the fire station in Cordova when he was young.
“I’d chase the engine out the door,” he said. “I’d get on my bicycle and follow them just to see what was going on. I always kind of had that passion for it and it is just always one of those things I wanted to do.”
Orth had a hard time describing exactly why he was leaving his post, but said the emotional weight of the job was part of the reason. Responding to accidents where children have died or finding friends or acquaintances among the injured tends to take an emotional toll, he said.
“I don’t want to say you grow calloused to it, but there’s a point where it’s hard to deal with it over and over again,” he said. “That kind of plays into it.”
He said he owed a debt of gratitude to the community for making public service a priority and to his family — wife Laurie and children Jennifer, Erin, Lisa, Madison, Shelby and Jesse.
“They’ve committed as much time in this department as I have over the years,” he said. “I just want to say thank you immensely to them.”
Orth’s advice to younger firefighters and emergency response personnel? When you are in the job don’t ever forget why you’re there, he said.
“I don’t know if I ever want to crawl into an ambulance again, but I still know that what I’ve learned over the years is always going to play into my life,” he said.
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.