Moments after twin explosions rocked downtown Boston on April 15, bystander Nicholas Yanni realized his wife was in trouble: Shrapnel from the blast had shattered her lower left leg. Nearby, Yanni saw another woman suffering a serious leg injury.
The Boston resident reacted quickly: Yanni ducked into a sporting goods store across the street and grabbed T-shirts for makeshift tourniquets.
It was a common scene at the Boston Marathon, as survivors used belts, shirts, and jackets to apply tourniquets or pressure to severely wounded victims. (At least 13 people lost one or more limbs, and many others suffered serious bleeding.)
Within days, a string of disasters around the world thrust more bystanders into critical moments of first aid: An explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killed at least 14 people (including 11 firefighters responding to the scene) and injured more than 160.
An eight-story building with thousands of garment factory workers collapsed near Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka. By early May the death toll had topped 400. And a gas explosion at an office building in downtown Prague injured at least 35 people.
The sights of ordinary citizens offering crucial first aid raises a compelling question: Is the average person prepared to help someone facing a life-threatening disaster?
Most people won’t encounter explosions and collapsing buildings, but first responder and Red Cross adviser Jeffrey Pellegrino says unintentional injuries aren’t uncommon: They’re the leading cause of death for people under age 44.
Pellegrino says average citizens can take simple steps to prepare for emergencies that might happen in public or closer to home: First aid classes and CPR courses are worthwhile investments of a few hours.
(And instructors can answer questions about the first aid methods that work best. For example, Red Cross officials say tourniquets remain a last resort for the most severe bleeding, but the method can save lives when limbs are severely torn.)
The organization also offers a series of mobile apps to guide users through emergency steps for injuries ranging from bleeding to burns to choking to diabetic attacks. The group offers training for businesses and churches seeking to develop an emergency plan. And parents can learn about how to prepare their children for an emergency, including how to respond to a seriously ill or injured mom or dad.
“It’s really a mindset of taking care of each other,” says Pellegrino.
Calling 911 remains one of the most important steps in serious cases, and emergency workers in Boston transported most bombing victims to area hospitals within minutes. (The first severely hemorrhaging patient was on the operating table 35 minutes after the blasts.)
But rescue workers agree the first moments after an injury are critical, and the steps ordinary citizens took to stop bleeding and calm victims in Boston likely helped first responders save lives.
They’re the kind of steps that could be part of Pastor Stephen Um’s call to members of Citylife Presbyterian Church in downtown Boston to be “good citizens and good neighbors” after Boston’s trauma.
For Christians and others across the country, being good citizens and good neighbors could mean responding compassionately to an emergency—or wisely preparing for one.
Yanni, the Boston man who improvised with T-shirts to help his injured wife, said a doctor successfully treated her broken bones. He also said his reaction to the disaster was instinctive, and that he acted on “autopilot, adrenaline, chaos. … What needs to be done, you do it.”