Despite close calls on job, many go back

Some may be frightened, but most need the pay or love their perilous work

April 27, 2003|By Harry Wessel | Harry Wessel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Randy Fogle returned to his job in January, it made headlines around the country. He was among nine coal miners trapped underground last summer for more than three days.

Fogle is back underground again in the Quecreek Mine near Somerset, Pa. "It's like a car wreck; you have to go forward," Fogle told the Associated Press, adding that he tries not to think about the 77-hour ordeal that riveted the nation in July: "You can't keep going over it in your mind or you'll drive yourself crazy."

While Fogle, 45, is the first of the trapped miners to return to work, he is far from the first worker to return to a job after suffering a traumatic, life-threatening experience. In many instances, love for the work or the need for a paycheck supersedes the fear of serious injury or death.

"I'm seeing more people going back to jobs they're scared of or hate because they're afraid otherwise they won't have anything," said Mimi Hull, a Maitland, Fla., management trainer and clinical psychologist. Still, the longer and more traumatic the life-threatening experience, the harder it is to return, Hull said.

Franklin Yi, a 60-year-old Seminole County, Fla., convenience-store owner, has lost count of the times he has been robbed, assaulted and menaced during his 15 years in business.

In 1990, two years after opening the Disco Food Store, Yi was assaulted by a group of men in the parking lot. He was hit in the mouth with a bottle and defended himself by shooting one of his attackers in the leg. The incident was so upsetting that Yi decided to close the store. "I was afraid to come to work. I had four broken teeth." But he couldn't find a buyer, so he reopened a few weeks later.

"I need the money," he said at the time. "I have a family."

It was another six troubled years before Yi was able to leave the Disco Food Store and take over the E-Z Way Food Store in Altamonte Springs, Fla., which was in a safer neighborhood. But it wasn't always safe. On the morning of Oct. 21, 2000, he was attacked in his store by two masked men, one wielding a hatchet. Yi was punched in the head and knocked down.

Yi would love to retire and devote more time to his real passion: golf. "There are too many hours, and it [his work] can be dangerous," he said, "but what else am I going to do? I have good customers, and some good friendships with them. There are a few bad people no matter where you are."

Although Yi returned to work out of necessity, other workers may be influenced by different factors. Jim Morrison, a psychologist in suburban Kansas City, Kan., counsels employees after they have suffered traumatic experiences. The sooner these employees receive professional counseling, he said, the more likely they are to return to the job where they were traumatized.

Hull of Maitland thinks one's profession also is an important factor. Construction workers seldom return to construction work after suffering a life-threatening injury; police and firefighters usually return to their jobs. "They have more of a family atmosphere," Hull said. "There's a lot of emotional support along with the job."

Jim Murphy's wife, children and grandchildren would prefer he had a desk job. But the Florida firefighter said he's not about to give up his lifelong passion. Not that he hasn't given his family - and himself - plenty of reasons for concern.

"I'm a cat with 11 lives. I've had at least 11 injuries on the job," said Murphy, 51, of the Orange County Fire Department. The worst of Murphy's injuries occurred on Thanksgiving 1995, when the roof of a burning house collapsed on top of him. A buddy pulled him out, but Murphy had one fractured vertebra and two surgeons telling him his firefighting career was over.

Murphy found another surgeon who believed differently, but he was out of work for nearly a year.

He picked a bad day to come back. He was sent to another house fire, and the roof collapsed on him. His helmet was hit hard enough to crack it, and his leg was pinned under a truss. "I thought I was a goner," he said, but his powerful partner lifted the truss and dragged him to safety.

Instead of convincing him that he was in the wrong career, the second roof collapse had just the opposite effect. "For 11 months I had been paranoid about hurting my neck again. Then a roof falls on me, cracks my helmet and my neck was OK. That gave me confidence."

Murphy figures accidents are part of the work. "It's not heroism," he said. "Many of my peers have suffered far worse than I have. I'd do this job even if I wasn't paid."

Harry Wessel is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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