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Bristol pastor arrives on a wing and a prayer

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By KATHRYN FLAGG
BRISTOL — It’s the usual work of a man of the cloth: comfort the dying and celebrate with the living.

So, in many ways, it was business as usual for the Rev. Bill Elwell, pastor of Bristol Federated Church, who buried an old friend one recent Saturday morning, consoled the family and friends left behind, and then quickly switched gears that afternoon to perform the marriage ceremony for a joyful Bristol couple.

But looking back on June 20, Elwell admits it was a day that was anything but ordinary.

After all, there was the matter of the helicopter, and a 28-minute airborne dash from the funeral in Bennington to the Bristol nuptials — a nearly 100-mile trip that delivered Elwell to the scene of the wedding with just 15 minutes to spare.

No, Elwell agreed — “business as usual” typically doesn’t involve door-to-door travel by helicopter.

But none of this was on Elwell’s mind earlier that week, when he received the sad news that set this strange plan in action. Elwell’s longtime acquaintance Dale Long, 48, had been killed in a tragic ambulance accident in Bennington.

Long, a Bennington EMT, was driving the ambulance on June 15 when it veered off the road, struck another vehicle and collided with a tree, killing Long and sending the 60-year-old female patient he was transporting to Albany Medical Center via helicopter with life-threatening injuries.

News of Long’s death rocked emergency responders statewide, and roughly 500 people — including emergency responders from several states — turned out for the longtime paramedic’s funeral. More than 70 emergency vehicles joined a miles-long procession from Manchester to Bennington, trailing behind the Bennington Rescue Squad’s A1 ambulance that carried Long’s flag-draped casket.

When Elwell heard the news of Long’s death that Monday afternoon, he knew right away what he needed to do. He hopped in his car and took off down Route 7 for the community he’d once called home.

Until taking over the post at the Bristol Federated Church last summer, Elwell had been a longtime Bennington-area resident. A firefighter himself, he was well connected to the community of emergency responders in the area.

Elwell had known Long personally for about 10 years, and for years Elwell served as the Bennington Rescue Squad’s chaplain.

While it’s not necessarily customary for a rescue squad to keep a chaplain on hand, Elwell said that more and more squads are recognizing the need for someone to provide additional support to emergency responders, who deal with traumatic events and stressful jobs on a regular basis. These days, Elwell also acts as the chaplain for the Vermont State Firefighters’ Association.

So it was in his role as the group’s one-time chaplain that he hurried back to Bennington to console the rescue squad. But when plans began to come together later that week for Long’s funeral, Elwell was afraid he would have to bow out. The Saturday afternoon Bristol wedding of Newell Paire and Christina Couture had been on his schedule since January, and Elwell considered whether there would be time for him to drive from Bennington to Bristol to make both occasions.

“I said, ‘That’s going to be impossible,’” Elwell said after plans for the Saturday funeral started coming together mid-week. But the squad in Bennington wasn’t buying it.

“I knew Dale, and I knew the squad, and they really wanted me there,” Elwell said. “They wouldn’t take no for an answer. They were willing to do what needed to be done to make it happen.”

“What needed to be done” included securing a helicopter and a full flight crew from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., arranging for Elwell’s trip up to Bristol, and securing a landing spot in town.

When he heard the plan, Elwell said, his first reaction was, “Yeah, right.”

They kicked around the idea of finding a small plane, but Long’s service as a paramedic meant the hospital ultimately offered up use of their helicopter.
“That I never dreamed of,” Elwell said.

The hospital needed to commit the helicopter in order for Elwell to make both the funeral and wedding. He said he’s just glad nothing unexpected cropped up that would have demanded the use of the helicopter, along with the pilot, flight nurse, and paramedic team that staffs the chopper. There were a few other back-up options in place, but by the time the funeral ended just before noon that Saturday, Elwell said he was just praying that the helicopter was still there.

Around a quarter after noon, Elwell was airborne. He called Bristol Fire Chief Peeker Heffernan to let him know he was on his way, and Heffernan arranged for the helicopter to touch down between Champlain Valley Plumbing and Heating and the Bristol Rescue Squad headquarters on North Street.

It was Elwell’s first time in a helicopter — and the experience, he said, was awe-inspiring.

“At that point I was shifting gears from a funeral to go to a wedding, and it was just a real gift to be able to look at the state,” Elwell said. “To see it from the air just brings a whole new measure to it.”

FAITH COMES ALIVE
In the end, the two events, in quick succession, gave him a way to live out his faith.

“For me, it was a very practical way of living out my faith,” he said. “(Jesus) was right there, weeping with those who were hurting, and yet there were those times when he was celebrating with folks at a wedding. It was interesting to let my faith come alive in such a short span of time.”

The helicopter touched down at the Bristol Rescue Squad at a quarter to 12:45 p.m., just 15 minutes before the wedding was scheduled to start. It was Elwell’s first wedding in Bristol since he moved to the area last summer.

Elwell became a minister around 10 years ago, after nearly losing his life in a fire. He was a firefighter before he became a pastor, and to this day he still volunteers with the Bristol Fire Department.

That experience gave him a perspective for Saturday’s funeral that not every pastor would have brought to the pulpit. Long’s death, he said, is a reminder of the real risk that emergency responders of all kinds take on every day in their line of work.

To Elwell’s mind, the hard work of emergency service departments around the region to make the funeral happen — and to make Elwell’s presence there a reality — spoke to many peoples’ deep respect for Long.

“There’s a real family in fire and EMS,” Elwell said, “and this gave me an opportunity to see what a great family that is all across the state.”

Long, who had worked as an emergency responder for more than 25 years, had earned numerous accolades for his work, including the Vermont EMS Advanced Rescuer of the Year award in 1998. He was recently honored as the Bennington Rescue Squad’s member of the year, and last month Long won the American Ambulance Association’s “Star of Life” award.

“Dale was always known for saying, ‘I’ve got your back,’” Elwell remembered. “It was good to see in the circumstances that everybody else had his back.”

As for his own part in the day, dashing from a grave to the alter, Elwell said the circumstances, distance and magnitude of the day were unusual — but the ceremonies themselves weren’t so disparate.

“God is involved in those milestones,” he said. “They’re milestones that bring about changes, and there’s a journey that goes forward from those changes.”

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