My Red Cross service at Ground Zero

In my last post I wrote about my first tour (with my wife, Maria) as a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Volunteer  in Manhattan, weeks after the 9-11 attacks. In 2001 Maria was employed, and I was between jobs. She’d been given two weeks leave to serve in New York, but couldn’t get an additional two weeks for a second tour. So, after my first tour ended, I was in a position to apply for a second tour and was again assigned to Manhattan. By this time luxury hotels were filling their rooms again, and I was given a shoebox of a room at the Pennsylvania Hotel – which happens to be my preferred lodging when I visit The City. And this time, when I in-processed  at the Red Cross headquarters in Brooklyn, I was given a prized assignment. I would be working at a Red Cross Respite Center at Ground Zero.

Ground Zero was fenced-in, and access was restricted to those who worked there. The sacred ground where the World Trade Center towers had stood was now known as the Pile by those who worked on it. Two weeks earlier, superstructure was still being torn down by giant machines resembling metal dinosaurs, and the wreckage could still be seen from outside the fence. Now operations were mostly subterranean, and Ground Zero was a vast pit, crawling with activity. The Respite Center I was assigned to at Ground Zero was there to serve anyone who worked on the Pile. The cafeteria operated 24/7 and free services were available for off-duty workers. Our clients included police and firefighters, demolition workers, engineers, telecommunications workers, machine operators, and National Guard troops.

Outside at Ground Zero, everyone had to wear a hard hat. The Respite Center was housed in a college student union building with a large atrium, a cafeteria and big rooms on the ground floor, and two more stories of smaller rooms, behind wide balconies  overlooking the atrium. Serving at the Respite Center was a very different experience than serving at a Family Service Center. It was where people working on the Pile went for meals, and when they were off-duty. Everything was free, from the cafeteria to a supply store with batteries, towels, work clothes, boots, gloves, etc. Workers who had long commutes could stay to sleep in dormitory rooms, without going home after each shift. There were also showers and darkened nap rooms with recliner chairs. There was a big media center where off-duty workers could play cards, or watch TV, or use a computer to play games, send e-mails, or surf the Web.  They could sign up for free massages or attend twelve-step meetings.

All Red Cross volunteers were there to pamper our clients and to help them deal with  the stresses of working on the Pile. We disaster mental health volunteers were there to listen to those who wanted or needed to talk, to be available and accessible. We knew not to ask intrusive questions or to initiate conversations about working on the Pile. We ate with the clients in the cafeteria and we schmoozed. We took snacks and coffee out to the cops and the National Guard troops providing security around the perimeter of the Pile. We filled in for other volunteers, washing dishes or making sandwiches, so they could take a break.

As with my first assignment in Manhattan, I was there to serve as a facilitator and troubleshooter – but in a different context. Our primary job was to provide respite to people doing stressful work. Bodies and body parts were still being found in the rubble. At one point I heard a local Salvation Army volunteer at a cafeteria table with firefighters ask a question about finding body parts. I took her aside and told her why her question was inappropriate at a Respite Center, where workers went to get away from their work on the Pile. She caught on.

There’s no telling how many New Yorkers developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to the events of 9-11, but in my two Red Cross tours in Manhattan I encountered quite a few. Some had seen bodies falling from the burning towers; others had run for their lives when the towers fell. I was asked time after time if what the person was going through was “normal.” The people asking that question might be experiencing depression, anxiety attacks, fear reactions, anger, and other PTSD symptoms. I don’t know how many times I said something like this to trauma victims: “What you’re experiencing used to be called ‘shellshock’ or ‘combat fatigue’. It’s not just soldiers in combat who have the kind of symptoms you’re having. You’re a civilian who suddenly found yourself in a war zone. What you’ve described to me is a normal reaction to an extremely abnormal experience. You’re not going crazy.”

Another question I got a lot from people experiencing symptoms of PTSD was, “Will it always be like this?” While I had to tell them that I couldn’t answer their question, my replies included positive suggestions about recovery: “Everybody’s different. Some people keep re-opening the wounds, or convince themselves that they’ll never get better, and don’t. Some people just get better over time. If your symptoms don’t begin to diminish, and disable you in some way, you should consider counseling..  But the important thing is to keep an open mind about your recovery. Trust in your ability to heal, and get help if you need it. Nobody has the right to tell you that you should have already gotten over it by now.”

Police (“New York’s Finest”) and firefighters (“New York’s Bravest”) were especially hard-hit by the 9-11 attacks, as they were mourning the loss of so many colleagues. All human remains found in the Pile were turned over to a special squad of policemen and firefighters, to be removed with ceremony and respect; so people were still being traumatized, weeks after the attacks. I felt privileged to be in the company of the men and women of the police and fire departments, and to play a small part in New York’s healing. I’d visited Manhattan before, but this time I felt a part of it. I fell in love with it.

 

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