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Chronicle of a Disaster

Barbanel, L. "Chronicle of a Disaster." The Independent Practitioner, Division 42, Division of Independent Practice, American Psychological Association: Washington, DC. Winter 2002, Vol. 22, No. 1.

I had been thinking about writing about my experiences with the WTC disaster since it occurred. The words were there, but I kept telling myself that I would get to writing when “it was over”. We all know now that it will not be over; that the residual and fallout will affect us all, both as individuals and as psychologists, in ways that we can envision at this point and probably in ways that we have not yet envisioned.

When the tragedy hit, I, as did other psychologists, tried to figure out where I could be of use. There was so much confusion those first days, coupled with difficulties in communication, that knowing where to help was difficult to determine. I live and work in Brooklyn Heights, just over the bridge from the WTC; our phone lines, email and TV reception were effected . I was first asked to go to a police academy in lower Manhattan where there was a need for psychologists, but could not make contact with them and could not get there because the bridges and tunnels and the subways in to Manhattan were closed except to rescue workers. Since I have been part of the NYSPA DRN for some time, I was called to register at the Red Cross for this disaster and then told, “No, the need is somewhere else”. When my email started to function, there were hundreds of e-mails from psychologists wanting to help. Some were able to get through the confusion and work, but others were frustrated because they could not get through or because of the confusion had been turned down by the Red Cross.

I ended up working in a number of settings: Shelters for displaced people, the “Compassion Center” which was set up for the families of individuals who were “lost” and at a “ Service Center” for people who were working at the WTC who need economic and other help, as well as for people who were displaced from their homes because of the disaster.

The breadth of these work placements begins to demonstrate the breadth of thisDisaster. The compassion Center was the saddest. Set up in an Armory, here families of victims, people who were last seen in the WTC and are now “lost”, came to look through hospital lists to see if perhaps their loved ones could be found. Rarely was anyone located. The hospitals in NYC had been on alert for emergency care. The doctors waited, but did not have many admissions. There weren’t many admissions because so many were “lost”, the euphemism for those that perished.

What did we do as psychologists? Not therapy, but “emotional first-aid”.

Some families were very contained and did not wish any emotional help. Others sat down and wept and wanted contact. One man asked me if I could speak to his young, pregnant wife about the loss of her mother. A worker asked me to speak to an older man who was looking for a woman who had at the time of the attack fallen down on the ground in front of him, told him she was not going to make it and gave him her student ID card. He was weeping because he felt he hadn’t helped her enough. He was hoping to find that she had survived. In the meantime he was walking around with her ID card.

In the armory the walls were plastered with pictures of people who were lost. To me it seemed as if they were all 28 years old. The pictures are all of happy occassions, a wedding, a boating trip, a father holding a child. So many of the people looking were the parents of the victims. But there were wives and husband and girlfriends and boyfriends. There were the representatives of various governments looking for their citizens who had been working there. It would be their job to inform the families of the deaths of their loved ones.

The headlines tell you of the large companies that “lost” thousands of people. Talking to immigrant parents of an only son who was lost, to the husband of a woman who perished and left three small children all under five, to the brother of a woman whose husband is lost and cannot bare to come to this place, gives you yet another picture of this tragedy. Responding as a psychologist is different than the responses that we have been trained to make in our offices when people present asking for help. First of all, we need to be sensitive to whether to respond altogether. Some people want help and can ask for it. Others would rather be left alone to find their own resources. Many, however, would like help and cannot reach out. To distinguish between the latter two types of people requires sensitivity that we are rarely asked to have.

I have worked with people with PTSD and in Disasters before. This one is different in a number of ways. The magnitude is larger than we in the United States have experienced before; the systems set up to deal with it involve more agencies and governmental bodies, city, state and federal. In places there was overlap of services and in places there were and are gaps. As psychologists working in it, we ourselves traumatized in a way that is not experienced in other kinds of disasters. At the same time that I was talking to the family of a victim, I stopped for a moment to think of a friend who lives in Battery Park City and I have not been able to reach. Transportation is disrupted; how to get home after the shift becomes an issue. Every one of my regular patients has a story and feelings that have to do with this disaster. By Friday after the disaster, I had calls to see people who had been affected; a woman who had escaped, a relative of one of the passengers on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania. In my position at Brooklyn College I was asked to be part of a group that developed the college’s response to the disaster, one that would serve students, faculty and staff.

Caretaker trauma has recently begun to be addressed in psychology circles. It has become dramatically clear in the aftermath of this disaster. Veteran rescue workers in this disaster have been clearly traumatized and are asking for help. So have on site reporters. The sight of Dan Rathers weeping openly on a late night talk show made that clear. Psychologists are in a unique position to understand that, but do not always take the time to monitor their own traumitization. NYSPA’s DRN organized a “training’ meeting on Saturday Sept. 22 at which I was asked to present. Thanks to June Feder, David Drassner and Paul Green for presenting alongside of me and for Maxine Spector for organizing this group. I think this group was helpful not only because of the information that it imparted, but for the support we were all able to give each other.

In my work within this tragedy, I was particularly struck with the acts of generosity and graciousness displayed by people related to this tragedy. The newspapers showed pictures of potential blood donors lined up around the block, waiting to donate blood. But there were many other acts of kindness, both larger and smaller. The day it happened, many of the finest restaurants in New York City sent food down to the rescue workers. One Red Cross worker that I spoke to told me that she felt a bit strange standing at ground zero and passing a tray of chocolate covered strawberries to rescue workers. They loved them. The gifts of food, clothing and other items to the rescue workers and families of victims were overwhelming. The Red Cross could not handle the number of volunteers that showed up. Thousands of people had to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to get home that evening. Individuals in Brooklyn Heights got water and cups from local supermarkets to hand to people as they came off the bridge. Court officers from the Brooklyn courthouses were there to assist people who, unaccustomed to the strenuous walk, needed medical assistance. One of the most touching experiences I had was when I left the Red Cross headquarters late one night. I was stopped by a police officer who asked me if I wanted a free taxi ride home. I told him that I was heading for Brooklyn. He said that was fine. There was in front of the Red Cross headquarters a line of taxis standing there prepared to take people involved in this effort home. This was their volunteer service. I entered a cab driven by a Sikh driver. His English was broken, but he wanted to tell me his story and to hear mine. The Red Cross had debriefed me before that, but this was my real debriefing for the day.

Psychologists have and will continue to perform various roles in this disaster and in its aftermath. The on-site“ emotional first-aid” has been the first and most obvious. The debriefing and discussions afterwards has begun in various settings and will continue. Businesses that were located in the WTC and close by have asked for help with their personnel. Schools are requesting assistance with children who have lost parents or who viewed the whole event. There are rescue workers who are in need, people dispossessed from their homes who are having all the symptoms of PTSD. Then there is a population that is frightened and wary of going out. Many peole are experiencing unaccustomed feelings of separation anxiety. In addition, psychologists will need to have input into the issues that have come up and are likely to come up around inter-group relations, anger and hate. This is just the beginning of a long walk to recovery.