Firefighter Who Refused Giffords Call Says He's 'Misunderstood'

Mark Ekstrum, who called in sick when his firehouse was called to the scene of the Tucson shooting, says he never expected his "measly little life would become national fodder"

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"There are times in life when you make responsible decisions and you just kind of have to live with being misunderstood," said Mark Ekstrum, the Tuscon firefighter who achieved Internet infamy today after the Arizona Daily Star reported that Ekstrum refused to go to the scene of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords's shooting because of "political bantering" in the firehouse. Soon, of course, the story became about how a firefighter was a partisan monster who wouldn't help a Democrat. Headlines included "Fireman refused to attend Giffords shooting spree because of 'her political views'" and "Tucson firefighter went home rather than respond to shooting scene."

The original report in the Daily Star suggests a more nuanced, and confusing, tale. And so we called Ekstrum, who has since retired from the fire department, at his Tucson home for clarification. He wasn't much help. We asked Ekstrum to describe his political beliefs and he declined. "Every person that reads the internet, every citizen... they may misunderstand, they may feel strongly about it, may want to know more facts. There's nothing that I can do about all that," he said.

In a statement to the Arizona Star, he said he voted for Giffords and that when he met her, he considered her "a person that was willing to listen." Ekstrum hasn't donated to any national or state political campaigns, according to a search of campaign finance databases. He's currently registered to vote as an independent; in the 1980s and 1990s he was registered as a Democrat.

Ekstrum was a 28-year veteran of the fire department on the day of the shooting. When the call came in, according to a fire department memo that Daily Star obtained, there was "political bantering" and "he did not want to be a part of it." Ekstrum asked to go home "for the good of the crew," but his captain said he couldn't leave for that reason. According to the memo, Ekstrum "started to say something about how he had a much different political viewpoint than the rest of the crew and he was concerned," and that he would go home sick. Ekstrum's crew, specially trained for large medical emergencies, was only dispatched an hour and a half after the shooting. Still, the incident caused a delay. 

When the crew came back from the call, Ekstrum was waiting, and apologized. Ekstrum sent a statement to the department saying he'd been "distracted to the point of not being able to perform my routine station duties to such an extent that I seriously doubted my ability to focus on an emergency call. ... [M]y communication centered more on how this event would affect the country and them and us, and, of course, led to their misunderstanding about my need to go home because I was at a point of distraction." The next day, according to the report, Ekstrum realized he made a mistake and retired.

Filtered through the political outrage machine, all sorts of conspiracy theories abound. One commenter at AOL News concluded, "Arizona has turned into a right-wing extremist state. Doing anything that could be seen as helping a Democrat, whether it's putting out a fire or giving medical assistance, could very easily get you in trouble if you have a government job." 

Whatever happened, Ekstrum isn't encouraged to say more about what happened. He said he didn't expect "my measly little life would become national fodder," adding, "I'll have to shoulder that responsibility."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.