9/11 CISM Experience and Perspective

I was asked to share my experience in CISM as it relates to September 11, 2001. I want to note that there is no “I” in “team”. Though this chapter is mine specifically, the larger story belongs to all first responders that experienced 9/11 upfront and head on. We all belonged to one community. We were all one team, no matter where you were. It took me years to even share my story. To this day, I find it incredibly difficult to step foot into the 9/11 Memorial in New York City and even more emotional to take those steps into the National September 11 Museum. The one place inside that museum that is still so gut-wrenching that I have only ever viewed it once, is the Flight 93 timeline, complete with the voices of passengers, their families, and air traffic control. I walked in a strong person. I walked out a broken one. Listening to the timeline and knowing what the responders experienced on that fateful day and the days that followed, left me sobbing uncontrollably for the first time since September 11th, 2001. At the dedication of the Flight 93 National Museum in Shanksville, PA, I represented the firm I was working for a the time. My daughter accompanied me. She was a 9/11 baby. I was just weeks pregnant when our CISM team responded to the crash site. Her world changed that day and she never even knew it. Her entire life would be reshaped by September 11th and mine would be redefined. The field where the plane went down looks much different today. The air smells calm and sweet, soft breezes fill the hallowed ground. That was not at all what we experienced at the time of the incident, but I am glad that there is now a peace that fills the space. Perhaps I really had not processed my experience fully until just a few years ago. In some ways, I am still processing that event and I probably always will be in some form or fashion. It was among the worst days for me as a person, as an American, and as an emergency responder, and it provided clarity in redefining what patriotism means in my world. I was humbled and honored to serve in those moments, after all, it is what emergency responders train for. However, if I ever need to do something like it again, it will be too soon.

I entered the fire service in 1991 and EMS in 1992. I trained in the late 1990’s for CISM and joined the South Central PA CISM Team in the 2000-01 time period. To say I was a fairly new peer responder in CISM during 9/11 is an understatement. I only had a few calls under my belt by the time September 11th occurred and I was woefully unprepared for the large-scale response that we were about to undertake. Several of my fellow team members had responded to an airline crash and to other large-scale calls. During the drive to Shanksville, I listened intently to the stories they shared about those events. In some ways, they were “debriefing the debriefer” years after their shared experiences by recounting their stories. In other ways, they were preparing me for what they knew was about to unfold. As we entered the town of Shanskville, the air was heavy and the atmosphere changed. People who were outside and able to be seen wore a look of heartbreak and numbness on their faces. Their affect was so very different than anything I had witnessed up to that point. They had been changed forever and most of them knew it.

Once on site, we used an access road that the US Army Corps of Engineers had laid just hours before. No road was no problem for them. When we crested the top of the hillside and came to the peak of the road, we were met by the FBI as they credentialed us for either “Disaster Site” or “Morgue” operations. Two from our team were the unlucky ones who got credentialed for both, and I was one of the two. We were to join a larger Pittsburgh-area CISM team to help relieve them of the full CISM support operation. After receiving my credentials, we were given the “speech” from some official person. Basically, they stated we should not use our own personal cell phones. There were designated phones for use by emergency workers. All telephone traffic, cell phones and the like, were all being monitored for terror threats. You would not be having any private conversations during the time emergency operations were in force. We were given a set of “rules” and off we went to the command post for the Pittsburgh team.

Our team began to talk through some possible next steps. We were not sure what we would be met with. There were multiple vehicles and ATV’s driving up and down the brand-new road, shuttling workers and supplies back and forth between the crash site and the mortuary operations site, which was part of a nearby US Army Armory commandeered for use as a make-shift morgue. I was doing my best to not get sick. I think I was sick every day since the beginning of my pregnancy, so I went into “just suck it up mode” to try to overcome my horrible bouts of nausea. After a bit, our team decided that we should not wait for the Pittsburgh team, but instead we should just begin our own operation mode. We may not see the members of the Pittsburgh team for a while. What we could see down the hill from the command post were the remnants of the crash site. We could watch what was happening from our place on top of the hill. Surreal. That is a good word to describe what it felt like. There was no time for emotion. No time to be awestruck at the magnitude of what was happening. It was “GO” time. I am so thankful for the experience that many of our teammates had. It was because of their leadership that we were able to do our jobs.

I still sit in awe of it all, thinking back to those days. There were swarms of people and equipment present on site. We had local emergency services from all disciplines – fire, EMS, police, PA State Police, Mounted PA State Police, ATF, FBI, Pittsburgh’s CISM Team, Army Corps of Engineers, DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team) and the National Guard. It did not stop there. There were support services like the Salvation Army, American Red Cross, and other disaster services that were prepared with food and drinks for the teams on the ground. Local residents gave their assistance and equipment as needed, and, when shifts changed, offered their homes as shelter for site workers. Volunteer counselors, medical personnel, chiropractors, massage therapists, and all kinds of support were there for the emergency workers. From the perspective of CISM, we later thought about all these relationships that were formed. There was no social media at the time to keep us in touch. No one really thought of asking for email addresses or phone numbers. It was not an environment that led to texting and the types of technological interactions that we would think of today. These relationships were formed in an emergency and then, like a puff of smoke, they were torn apart. These were individuals we counted on for days. We worked beside them. We talked with them. We laughed together. We cried together. Then, we all left, one by one, until no one was left. That was hard. These are people who were asked to put the weight of the world on their shoulders for mere moments in time, and then they were gone. Temporary relationships. I often wondered how these people I formed temporary bonds with were doing a few weeks, months, or years after those days.

It is incredible to think back and look at the swarms of emotions that we were all feeling at the time, but somehow we had managed to bury them while the critical work was being done. “Talk to a CISM member, to a peer?” “No, thank you,” was the typical response. In a matter of hours, we quickly figured out we were asking the wrong questions. “How are you doing?” was not going to cut it. We all knew how we were doing. We were all angry, hungry and tired. Everyone had a job to do and no one would stop until it was done. Our team quickly changed, as happens on so many critical responses, to adapt to the needs of those on scene. It was not about how they were doing, but rather “what can we do for you?” We asked if people needed breaks, food, drinks, or if they simply needed to call home. We shuttled people back and forth from where they were working to the places they needed to go. We did not focus on the incident, but rather where they came from, if they had family, what their families were doing, etc. Small talk was a vital lifeline for most I helped. We asked about normal, everyday things attempting to talk about everything except what we were facing. For a few minutes, the proverbial elephant in the room did not exist. Most opened up about something. Some were numb and so tired that they could not think about doing anything except getting a quick bite to eat before going back to do the work they had trained to do. It was the simple conversations that made the difference. It was the only normalcy in such an abnormal time.

After September 11, 2001, no one I knew was untouched. For all the first responders in Shanksville, I cannot imagine that anyone returned as the same person they were when they left to help. I am certain that this can be said for all NYC responders and those who responded to the Pentagon. The world felt like it was going to end on September 11th, but it did not. This was a different beast. For days, I had new best friends. I had people that I could relate to, both from our emergency services vocations – whether volunteer or paid – and in everyday life. We cried together. We laughed together, albeit with some guilt. In the end, we drank together, toasted what we had just accomplished and then we said our goodbyes. Today, I am not sure I would recognize one of those friends if I ran into them on the street, but I know that each and every one of them would offer their hand out to help me in my time of need. Shameful to admit, but it is the nature of the beast. Debrief the debriefers? Perhaps we did that on the hours long ride on the way home. If we did, I am not sure how effective it was. Afterall, we just left our friends. Frankly, I remember silence. I remember feeling numb. This could not have possibly happened, right? In the days and weeks that followed, life went on, but I viewed things through a different lens. We all did. We are all still recovering. For some of us, we always will be. As crisis responders, it is imperative that we take care of ourselves. Our teams do not typically run two or three people deep as some other technical teams do. Like many volunteer services, we have limited resources to work with. Our main resource is our fellow team members. Let’s be careful to make sure we address our needs once the call breaks. Regroup and reset. Do that in the days, weeks, and months that follow. At poignant anniversary dates of large traumatic events, check in. Make sure that your fellow responders are moving forward. We do that for those we debrief and defuse. It is also critical we do it for our teams and ourselves. We only have one life to live and we choose to live it giving back to the communities we serve. Let’s take care of us so we can continue to take care of them.