Almost all of the ordinary civilians who helped save the lives of an estimated 250 people who fled a terrorist’s massacre on the island of Utøya last month are now on sick leave. Many are suffering from the aftershocks of the heroic but traumatic action they took on July 22.
Civilians arriving quickly at the scenes of last month’s terrorist attacks in Oslo and on Utøya will likely never forget what they saw or how they reacted. Newspaper Aftenposten reported Tuesday that the so-called “heroes of Utøya” are now having trouble sleeping, experiencing anxiety and worrying over the fate of those they saved and those they didn’t.
“I just did my duty and don’t feel like any hero,” Robert Wilhelm Johnsen, age 46, told Aftenposten. “But the pictures, the sounds, the thoughts and the questions don’t disappear from my head.”
Johnsen was among the vacationers at a campground on the mainland at Utvika, around 600 meters from the island where a lone gunman shot and killed 69 persons during a massacre that lasted for more than an hour. When he and others started hearing the shots being fired, and realized what was happening, they set off in their small boats to try to rescue those desperately trying to flee the island by swimming to shore.
Both he and the others risked their own lives as gunman Anders Behring Breivik’s bullets flew around them, with a deadly range of what’s been reported as more than 3,000 meters. It’s already been reported how Breivik, after gunning down people on the island, tried to shoot and kill those in the water as well.
“I think especially a lot about the youngsters (still on the island) whom I yelled to from the boat after the gunman was arrested,” Johnsen told Aftenposten. “They didn’t answer. Were they dead? Didn’t they dare to show any signs of life? Could they have been saved? What happened to them?”
Johnsen said he was among those who called police emergency lines for help, after they realized that people were being shot. “We waited and waited but it was a desperate situation,” he said. “We were completely unprepared and acted on instinct. As the minutes ticked by, we put boats in the water, and wounded and shocked youngsters started arriving at the pier (at Utvika) and were taken care of. We heard more shots, and saw bullets hitting the water. It was all so unreal, completely incomprehensible.”
But still they set off as a small flotilla of rescuers to pull as many exhausted swimmers, some of them wounded, as they could up from the chilly waters of the Tyri Fjord. The rescuers still haven’t received legal status as targets of the gunman as well, but that’s expected, and they stand to qualify for compensation as the massive court case against Breivik gets underway.
Meanwhile almost all of the roughly 20 impromptu rescue workers like Johnsen are on sick leave. Johnsen himself was off work for a week after the massacre, but now is among the few back on the job. All are being offered medical and psychological help.
“It’s good to work, it helps keep all the thoughts away,” Johnsen told Aftenposten. “But when the evening and night come, it’s more difficult. Sleeping pills can help, but then I suddenly wake up in the middle of the night and am lying there, thinking.” He hopes professional help will relieve the situation with time.
Sjak Haaheim, a lawyer representing many of those who saved lives on July 22, confirmed that all of them are getting needed help. “Some of them worked from the pier area, other plucked youngsters out of the water, there’s no doubt they were in danger themselves,” Haaheim told Aftenposten. “It’s my job to help them get all the assistance they need from here on. They could have retreated and waited for the police, but they made the human and morally correct choice to do all they could to save lives.”
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