2016 Officer Ambush: Story Of 1st Responders, Lieutenant
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — First it was a plaster cast extending from shoulder to wrist. Now it's a removable plastic brace and compression sleeve.
First there was no movement. Now Lt. Bruce Simmons has a habit of opening and closing the fingers on his left hand — for no particular reason, just because he can.
Simmons was one of the victims in the 2016 ambush on law enforcement that killed three officers and wounded three others in Baton Rouge. He went back to work for the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office last summer, hoping to finish his career as planned and retire in 2021 with 28 years of service under his belt.
But he returned to medical leave in April because the bone in his upper arm — "almost literally blown off" when he was shot during the ambush and then reconstructed by surgeons — had become infected and would need further surgery.
Having now made it through his sixth operation in two years, Simmons is again waiting to regain movement in his arm before returning to work. He won't leave the job he loves.
Simmons had not before spoken publicly and in detail about what happened to him on the morning of July 17, 2016, because he wanted people to focus on the families of officers who lost their lives and those more seriously hurt when Gavin Long opened fire on law enforcement outside an Airline Highway convenience store. The gunman had traveled to Baton Rouge after the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling a few weeks earlier, which had ignited protests.
Simmons still doesn't want undue attention and continues to experience some "survivor's guilt."
"Gavin Long didn't take nothing from me. He took so much more from the others," he said. "I'm no hero. I was just doing my job that day. That's what we do — protect and serve. Period."
While Simmons was risking his life in the shooting, his colleagues were doing everything they could to support him and the other officers on scene. Some faced higher stakes than others, losing their friends or relatives, or even their own lives.
In recounting their experiences that morning, first responders paint a picture of selflessness in modest terms: doing their jobs under the most challenging circumstances.
Once the gunman was taken down and the dust had settled, they allowed shock waves of grief to wash over them. But then they went back to work — prepared as ever to run toward danger in hopes of saving lives.
Dispatchers were enjoying a quiet Sunday morning inside East Baton Rouge Emergency Medical Services headquarters.
Someone had brought boxes of boudin into the office to celebrate a relative peace after heated demonstrations in Baton Rouge and an attack on police in Dallas just 10 days earlier. Most thought the worst was over and were thankful the protests hadn't turned more violent.
Dispatcher Kimberly Pittman answered one of the first 911 calls from someone reporting a man dressed in black with a duffel bag who was "trying to shoot an officer" in front of Benny's Car Wash on Airline Highway.
"You don't know what's going on. You're hoping it's a prank call (because) if it's something that bad, you're thinking this cannot be serious," she said. "These people have to be just playing with you."
But as Pittman was still on the phone, other dispatchers heard radio traffic that confirmed the shooting.
"Then it was just a whole bunch of emotions," she said. "You hope that it's nobody you know, you hope (police) catch the person before he does more harm."
Simmons had just started his shift that morning as a supervisor with the Sheriff's Office traffic division. He moved to the division several years ago, in part because traffic deputies are allowed to ride motorcycles.
Simmons met Cpl. Nick Tullier for coffee around 8 a.m. at Frank's Restaurant on Airline Highway. The two planned to spend their day as usual, patrolling roads and investigating car crashes — until they heard Deputy Brad Garafola over the radio: "Shots fired, officer down! Shots fired, officer down!" The call came from the near the B-Quik convenience store where Garafola was working a detail just 2 miles from Frank's Restaurant.
Simmons and Tullier ran to their vehicles. Tullier pulled ahead and Simmons followed his lead even though their fast approach worried him. Above all he was focused on one thing: finding Garafola and helping him.
The deputies didn't know when they arrived that Garafola had already been mortally wounded alongside Baton Rouge police officers Matthew Gerald and Cpl. Montrell Jackson.
Tullier pulled into the Fitness Expo parking lot and began examining the shooter's car, which was also parked there. Simmons arrived soon afterward and loaded his shotgun. He remembers hearing no gunfire at first and had just started walking toward Tullier when shots rang out.
Simmons never saw the shooter but he became Long's target almost immediately after Tullier went down. Then came "a lot of rounds" and the feeling of "being hit with a sledgehammer."
Simmons couldn't shoot in Long's direction because he feared striking Tullier in the process. So he ran closer to the nearest building and tried to use his radio — but found his left arm "wasn't working" because it was "tucked back behind my body and I couldn't get it to come around."
After using his right hand to manipulate the microphone, Simmons drew his pistol and squatted as much as possible, trying to find a position from which he could shoot at Long.
Simmons had spent several years as a sniper for the SWAT team before moving to the traffic division. He said his specialized training came rushing back, telling him to focus on eliminating the threat despite his injuries.
Back at EMS headquarters, dispatcher Stacey Cutrer heard Simmons' voice over the radio and immediately thought of his stepdaughter and her close friend, an East Baton Rouge paramedic also working that morning.
"You can't let your emotions take over even in a situation like that," Cutrer said. "There were times my voice would start to shake — that's when you just take a deep breath, say a quick prayer and get back in the game."
Cutrer was named East Baton Rouge communications officer of the year for 2018 after almost 20 years on the job. She comes from a family of first responders.
Dispatchers immediately sent ambulances to the scene, telling paramedics to wait some distance away because there was an active shooter.
But one paramedic ventured into the action. Lacey Spencer was embedded with the Baton Rouge police Special Response Team — a precaution during the protests — when calls came in about the shooting. So she responded alongside the officers, who engaged the gunman in a shootout and ultimately killed him.
Spencer vividly recalls the overwhelming smell of gunfire upon stepping out of the ambulance, but a lot of other details about that morning have fallen out of her memory.
"I was obviously terrified, but also knew that I had a job to do," she said. "That's how I would describe my actions that day: doing what I could in the presence of absolute fear. . And that's what we do as first responders. We go into unknown situations. It may not be a crazed shooter ambushing people, but that's what we do every day."
A Baton Rouge police officer spotted Simmons just before the gunman fell. The officer yelled for Simmons to come toward him and then placed a tourniquet around his arm before passing him along to Spencer, who dressed the wound further and made sure there weren't more extensive injuries.
She didn't know Simmons before that day but remembers his "crystal blue eyes" and how he told her that his stepdaughter was Lauren Denicola, another paramedic whom Spencer knew well. Spencer said the weight of what had happened "kind of compounded" in her mind when he mentioned Denicola.
Simmons said he never lost consciousness and tried to remain focused on protecting himself and Spencer in case there was another shooter.
Since she couldn't leave the scene, Spencer brought Simmons to another ambulance that took him to the hospital. The paramedic inside that ambulance called Denicola and told her what had happened but assured her that her stepdad was going to make it.
Dispatchers had also taken her ambulance out of service so she wouldn't be sent to the scene.
Denicola remembers how worried she was about her stepdad and other first responders during the Alton Sterling protests. She remembers thinking after the ambush: now the worst has happened.
Once she and her mother arrived at the hospital, they found Simmons "laying there just crying — not out of pain, just for Nick and Brad. That's all he could think about."
Both Simmons and Spencer said they wish they could have helped more on the scene, questioning what could have happened if they'd reacted differently.
"There's still a lot of residual from that," Denicola said. "People think that because it's been two years, things are better. But it's still something that's hard to talk about."
Tullier was shot multiple times and has been undergoing extensive treatment for the past two years. He has made remarkable progress and defied doctors' predictions but still struggles with basic tasks such as forming words and moving his limbs.
Simmons has traveled to Houston to visit Tullier a few times and is planning another trip soon.
Cpl. Chad Montgomery was the third officer injured during the ambush when the gunman shot into his car and a bullet grazed his head. But his injuries were minor and Montgomery returned to work with the Baton Rouge Police Department not long after the shooting.
Spencer and Denicola both said it's natural to question your career choices after an event like the ambush, but the two paramedics ultimately reaffirmed their commitment to the job, which above all focuses on protecting life.
"It doesn't get any closer than family and right after (the ambush) I just never wanted to experience this kind of pain again," Denicola said. "But with time I realized there's a reason I signed up to do this job 11 years ago. That was my choice and my choice only."
The 2016 floods followed less than a month after the ambush, leaving many first responders struggling to help with rescue missions while also dealing with their own flooded homes. Simmons and his wife are still living in a FEMA trailer but hoping to move back into their house next month.
Simmons' last operation was more successful than doctors had anticipated: his bone had generated significant regrowth before the infection settled in. So instead of removing another bone from his leg and using that to again rebuild his arm, surgeons were able to simply remove the metal plates causing the infection and allow the bone to keep regenerating. Now frequent physical therapy sessions are helping him once again improve his range of motion.
In the meantime, his No. 1 goal is getting back on his motorcycle. No. 2 is returning to work.