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FDNY crew counsels firefighters at Aurora shooting

Firefighters walk to shade as temperatures near 100

Firefighters walk to shade as temperatures near 100 degrees, at the booby trapped apartment of James Eagen Holmes, who police have identified as the suspect in the deadly shooting at a crowded movie theater a day earlier, in Aurora, Colo. (July 21, 2012) Credit: AP

AURORA, Colo. -- As stunned and grief-stricken Aurora emergency responders coped with the aftermath of the Century 16 theater shootings, the FDNY swiftly came to the aid of their brethren.

Sharing lessons learned from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the three-member peer support crew from New York flew into the Denver suburb Saturday to offer counseling to "dozens" of Aurora firefighters.

"A lot of people forget emergency responders are traumatized by events," said FDNY Capt. Frank Leto, of Garden City, a 12-year member of the department's counseling services unit and a 22-year department veteran. "They wanted to save every life, but it was impossible."

The unit visited several Aurora firehouses to ensure first responders didn't feel overwhelmed by the scene at the mass shooting, said Leto, 53.

Twelve people were killed and at least 58 were hurt Friday at Century 16 during "The Dark Knight Rises" premiere. Police have charged James Holmes, 24, of Aurora, with the deaths. He appeared in court Monday in Centennial, Colo.

As happened in New York City in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Aurora emergency responders have a feeling of helplessness, and that the community has lost its sense of safety, said Claire Cammarata, 43, clinical director of the FDNY unit who shared counseling duties with Leto.

"There hasn't been any formal intervention, but we're sharing our experiences," she said. "We're really just trying to support them because they support the community."

Aurora Fire Department officials said its personnel are under a court gag order and are no longer allowed to speak to reporters about Friday's shootings.

At a news conference on Saturday, Fire Chief Mike Garcia praised the assistance from the New York police and fire departments, noting that "one of the lessons they learned from 9/11 is that you have to take care of your own. . . . They sent a team of their specialized, professional counselors, and they're with us today. That speaks volumes."

The unit, which is dispatched "a couple times a year" during major events such as Hurricane Katrina, operated in conjunction with the International Association of Fire Fighters. The Aurora department is part of the association, officials say.

Leto said he told the firefighters they are "resilient" and must grow together as a department.

He compared the importance of consoling emergency responders to the need to get help for soldiers returning home from war, adding that being traumatized by a tragic event is normal.

"It's OK to be sad," he said.

The FDNY support crew returned to New York City Tuesday.

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