It is hard to believe that 10 years have gone by since September 11, 2001. In my memory, it feels like yesterday because I can recall the events vividly. That day and the work I did in the days, weeks and months afterward shaped my life in many ways.
When you think about public health and responses to natural or manmade tragedies, you think about the physical destruction these events leave on communities. However, the mental health impact from disasters is also incredibly important to consider. I began my disaster relief response work in 1993 with the American Red Cross and was deployed to my first large scale disaster in1994, the Northridge, CA earthquake. I had seven years of disaster response under my belt before9/11 and knew firsthand the importance of an integrated behavioral health response.
What I wasn’t ready for was how the events of September 11th would transform my own understanding of terrorism as well as those of most everyone in our country.
At the time of the attacks, I was the New York State Disaster Mental Health Volunteer Lead for the Red Cross and in that leadership role responsible for working with Red Cross chapters across the state recruiting and training disaster mental health responders. At the moment the first tower was struck, I was in an aviation disaster exercise planning meeting with city and airport emergency management officials at the Greater Rochester International Airport in upstate New York. As we watched news footage of the events, the second plane struck the World Trade Center towers. I immediately called the NY State Red Cross Disaster Lead and received instructions to deploy to New York City. I rented a van, went to the local Red Cross chapter to gather supplies, packed a few personal items and began my drive downstate.
Ultimately, I fell into a caravan of state officials and other responders who were deployed to the city as well. Normally a trip that would take five hours was accomplished in three. Having to stop mid-way through my drive, I was separated from the caravan. A short time later I continued my trip and eventually had the city in sight. I was struck by the absence of two of New York City’s most well known landmarks replaced by a landscape of billowing gray-black smoke. I approached the Holland tunnel on the New Jersey side, which was secured by the National Guard. After verifying my identification and seeing I was with the Red Cross, they allowed my van through— it was a surreal moment being the only person in the tunnel, a transportation landmark that typically sees thousands of cars traveling through it each day.
As I emerged out of the tunnel into lower Manhattan I made my way up the Westside to the New York City Chapter of the Red Cross. Crawling my way up, I was driving over fire hoses and the debris from the fallen towers. At one point I passed close enough to see the rubble from the buildings and the continuing fire and smoke. At that moment I thought to myself: “what could I possibly do, as one volunteer, in response to this massive event?”
The thought wasn’t with me for long as I was determined to do what I was trained to do. I needed to get to the Red Cross chapter and begin to coordinate our disaster mental health response. I arrived at the Chapter and was struck by the thousands of people standing inline. Many of them were waiting to donate blood, make a monetary donation, or lend their hand to the response. I entered the Chapter, found the Emergency Services leader, and was briefed on what had transpired and their initial response plan. Throughout the rest of that day and into the first night I provided psychological support to Red Cross personnel that responded immediately to the scene after the first plane struck the tower, many of whom found themselves running for their lives when the buildings began to collapse. I also worked with the staff to coordinate the recruitment and selection of volunteers that would ultimately provide psychological support to victims and their families in the days and weeks to come.
At 4:00 a.m. on September 12, I and my Red Cross colleagues were called to a meeting with representatives from the New York City Mayor’s office to review the plan for opening a Family Assistance Center later that morning. This Center would be the first stop for many that were in search of the whereabouts of their family and friends who had still not returned home after the buildings collapsed.
Initially the plan was to stand up the Assistance Center at New York University Medical Center, but the proposed auditorium could realistically only accommodate 350 people. We knew this would be grossly insufficient — as we were expecting thousands of people in a matter of hours. It was announced that the center would open at8:00 a.m., and by 6:00 a.m. there were thousands of people in line. We filled the first few hundred seats and began our work. Families were led to rooms to meet with representatives of the New York City Police Department and Medical Examiner’s Office. Many were unprepared for the extensive and at times traumatic questions that would be asked of them. For this reason we also made sure we had mental health and spiritual care volunteers available to support these families through this process. We also posted these professionals outside to walk up and down the line of those waiting to enter the Center.
Because of the volume of people arriving to the center, we quickly ran out of space and later that day needed to relocate to another site. By the second day, those who had loved ones in the World Trade Center Towers likely already had their loved ones safely at home with them or knew of their whereabouts. Those that continued to show up at the center were not so fortunate and as the days progressed the pervading sentiment was “no news wasn’t good news.”
Over the ensuing five days, we moved the Family Assistance Center three times before settling into its permanent location at Pier 94 located on Manhattan’s Westside and the Hudson River.
The two weeks of my deployment and the subsequent year that I spent traveling back and forth from my home in Rochester to New York City, left an indelible mark on me. While my initial role was to coordinate the mental health response to this tragic event and provide emotional support to Red Cross volunteers and the families of those who died in the towers, my subsequent role was to work with City and Red Cross officials to plan for how to address the short and long-term psychological aftermath of this catastrophic incident.
The psychological impact I knew was big not only for those directly involved, but for people like myself that were called to respond. I had been involved with disaster work before, but I never fully appreciated the emotional impact that disasters, such as acts of terrorism can have, even on the most experienced disaster response professionals. This was a real awakening of my own vulnerabilities.
Professionally, it became clear how important it is to prepare and train individuals to work in a disaster environment. Frankly, one of the most challenging situations of managing the response to 9/11 was managing the staff, their frustrations and grief, and their expectations for what role they would play in this response. In addition, there were thousands of mental health professionals that wanted to help. While many were well- intentioned, few were truly prepared for the roles they would take on as a volunteer.
These were unprecedented times that, in many ways, many of us still find ourselves recovering from. On this, the 10 year anniversary, it has left us reflecting on where we were at the time, what contribution we made to helping those directly impacted by this tragic event, and wondering what would happen if something similar happened again. For those of us who are disaster response leaders, it reinforces the importance of building a robust and prepared nation — recruiting, training and sustaining a workforce, both volunteer and paid, that has the capability to be at the right place, doing the right things, at the right time.
Jack Herrmann, MSEd, NCC, LMHC, Senior Advisor, Public Health Preparedness, National Association ofCounty and City Health Officials (NACCHO)