First responders in a Texas town are struggling to cope with the trauma of recovering bodies from the Rio Grande

EAGLE PASS, Texas — The crisis unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border since last year has spilled over into the fire engines and ambulances of a small Texas town.

First responders in Eagle Pass say they are overwhelmed and increasingly traumatized by what they see: parents drowned or dying, their children barely holding onto life after attempting to cross the Rio Grande.

The emotional strain on firefighters and EMTs has grown so great that city officials have applied for a state grant that would bring in additional mental health resources for front-line workers.

“It’s an unprecedented crisis,” said Eagle Pass Fire Chief Manuel Mello. “It’s nothing close to what I experienced while I was on the line. It’s a whole different monster.”

Firefighters say the first calls for help usually blare through the three stations in Eagle Pass while crews are still sipping their morning coffee, bracing themselves for what the day will bring.

Parents with young children might be near drowning or trapped on islands somewhere between the United States and Mexico, surrounded by the fierce currents of the Rio Grande.

On some shifts, firefighters with the Eagle Pass Fire Department can spend three to five hours in the water, helping rescue migrants crossing the river or recovering their drowned bodies.

“It’s something we’ve never gone through,” said Eagle Pass native Marcos Kypuros, who has been a firefighter and EMT for two decades. “It’s been hard having to keep up with that on top of everything else we take care of.”

Eagle Pass has become ground zero in recent months for an unrelenting border crisis that is equal parts political and humanitarian.

With hundreds of thousands of people attempting to cross the border illegally each year near Eagle Pass, city emergency personnel have increasingly been called upon to perform difficult and often dangerous rescues or to retrieve dead bodies, they said. They do this while juggling other emergencies in the city of 28,000 and throughout sparsely populated Maverick County.

“They see decomposing bodies, they see children that have drowned. Babies 2-months-old, with their eyes half-open, their mouths full of mud,” Mello said. “I know that when I signed up, they told me that I would see all of that, but not in the number that these guys are seeing now.”

Call volumes to the fire department surged last summer after Title 42, which set limits on asylum-seekers hoping to enter the United States, was lifted. On a typical day, the department might receive 30 calls, but the number has doubled in recent months, Mello said.

The added strain prompted one of his firefighters, who was still working through the required probationary period, to turn in his gear and switch careers entirely, he added.

After a record-breaking number of illegal crossings in December, federal authorities say the figure dropped by half in January. The most significant decrease was in the U.S. Border Patrol’s Del Rio sector, which includes Eagle Pass.

But the steady rise in crossings last year has taken a toll on first responders who did not sign up for this kind of work, Kypuros said.

“Those times where we recover four or five, six, up to seven bodies a day — it was just rough,” he said.

As the number of calls for emergencies on the border grew last fall, so did the number of sick days firefighters requested, according to the fire chief.

“I try and leave all this at work, not take it home with me, but it’s so hard,” Kypuros said. “Sometimes it’s hard to cope.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment. It was not immediately clear when the funds the city applied for would be awarded.

After the record-breaking number of attempted border crossings last year, Abbott ramped up the state’s immigration enforcement efforts. Last week, he announced the deployment of 1,800 members of the Texas National Guard to Eagle Pass in an effort to curb illegal crossings.

Abbott, a Republican, installed razor wire near the Rio Grande at Eagle Pass as part of the enforcement operation, and previously placed buoys in the river to prevent crossings.

Firefighters have treated lacerations and open wounds from people trying to crawl through the concertina wire, Kypuros said. At times, local hospitals get so overwhelmed with patients from the border that wait times for a bed can stretch to two hours, Garcia added.

As thousands of people without pathways to U.S. citizenship wait in squalid, makeshift camps on the Mexico side of the border, others attempt dangerous river crossings across the Rio Grande, endangering their own lives and those of their loved ones.

Harish Garcia, who has worked as a firefighter EMT in Eagle Pass for three years, still cannot shake the memory of a drowning mother and her young daughter. Garcia’s crew, including a firefighter with a daughter around the same age as the little girl, loaded the two into an ambulance, he said, but it was too late.

When crews returned to the station, some called their families. Others went quiet, Garcia said.

“Unfortunately, calls are going to keep coming in after that, so we can’t hang on to that for too long,” he said months later. “We have to just let it go and move on to the next call.”

Garcia and Kypuros say they’ve lost count of how many bodies they’ve recovered in recent months. The majority are found after failed attempts to cross the river, but other calls have led fire crews into the rough brush of South Texas, where dehydration and exposure can prove just as deadly.

David Black, a psychologist who has worked with the California law enforcement community for more than 20 years, said witnessing the death of a child is often the most traumatizing event a first responder can experience. Without a strong support system both in and out of the workplace, that stress can eat away at them.

“We outsource our worst-case scenarios to first responders,” he said. “If you have your own children, that can really impact how you look at your own family.”

As Eagle Pass waits for the state grant to be approved, agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection and other federal workers already have access to mental health resources internally.

The services, which include on-site clinicians and field psychologists, are part of a larger effort to “improve resiliency and encourage our colleagues to seek help when they need it,” said Troy Miller, acting CBP commissioner.

Mello said that despite the uncertain nature of the border crisis and the political tensions between the White House and the governor’s office, he is optimistic that help will come.

Until then, he knows the calls for help will keep coming.

Morgan Chesky reported from Eagle Pass, Texas, and Alicia Victoria Lozano from Los Angeles.

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