AUSTIN, Texas - Austin medics and firefighters were able to save hundreds of people who were freezing to death in their homes during last week's winter storm.
However, there were so many calls coming in that some requests had to go unanswered.
Once the roads in Austin were covered in snow and temperatures dipped into the single digits, thousands of homes all over the city lost power. It was first responders who then answered the community's desperate pleas for help.
"It was the most stressful thing in my life, and I'm a 35-year Battalion Chief with the Austin Fire Department," said Bob Nicks, president of the Austin Firefighters Association.
"It was such a life-changing experience. I've had so many medics tell me that it was the worst shift of their life," said Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association.
Austin-Travis County EMS responded to people without power trying to survive without their oxygen tanks or cancer patients in severe pain unable to access medication.
"Some people were not able to pick up prescription refills, were not able to get medical treatment that they needed, like dialysis. And so we had a lot of people that were starting to suffer because they weren't able to get the medicines that they need," Xie said.
Xie explained how one caller reported that a loved one had passed away in their home. 911 wasn't able to send resources because responders were too busy saving lives. Selena had to tell the caller their only immediate option was to take the body somewhere themselves.
"It's just unfathomable that in America it would make any kind of sense for me to tell somebody to put a dead person in your own vehicle and drive it to a funeral home because we don't have the resources to spare. And so I was just thinking about that and doing that in Austin and imagining me possibly doing that two weeks ago, or doing that now and it just seems like it was a nightmare," said Xie.
Nicks said after offering his personal cell phone number to those unable to reach the fire department, he received more than 400 calls for help. "They couldn't get through to 911 and they couldn't get through to 311 and they were literally starving and freezing in their homes," said Nicks.
Nicks said firefighters coming off their fifth shift in a row volunteered to help pick up people in distress.
"We picked up quadriplegic and paraplegic people that were stuck in different places and got them to their caretakers. A 97-year-old woman on top of an ice mountain for five days with no food, water or heat, we were able to get her and bring her to her granddaughter. So I could tell you 100 stories like this," Nicks said.
Even now that the snow has melted, the events of last week continue to impact the lives of Austin's first responders, the people they rescued and those they couldn't.
"I had nightmares of the people I had to turn down that day because we just didn't have the bandwidth to see them. And I can still hear the phone going off over and over in my head and the same is going to happen to these folks. I was lucky, I wasn't freezing and starving to death," said Nicks.