9/11 EMS Providers Offer Powerful & Compelling Words

Thoughts on the interviews conducted for 'Out of the Darkness'



A.J. Heightman, MPA, EMT-P | Teresa McCallion, EMT-B | | Wednesday, September 7, 2011

There's nothing more powerful and compelling than hearing the facts about an incident directly from a first-person source. We've done that in the development of the four-volume historic report Out of the Darkness presented here. To do so, we spent time with key personnel in each involved city to discuss the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the aftermath of that unforgettable day.

We chose the title "Out of the Darkness" because so many of those we spoke to reported how that day went from being a picture-perfect day to one of death, darkness and despair in a matter of minutes. Many reported being trapped under debris in complete darkness and having to crawl toward a ray of light to find a source of fresh air. And many report still having dark emotional periods as a result of their experiences that day, as well as the sights and sounds associated with their incident.

We were struck by the lasting damage caused by the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. For many, time hasn't healed the emotional scars they sustained on 9/11. For others, health issues caused from breathing super-heated, microscopic dust will plague them to the end of their lives. For a few, the emotional damage is less visible and, perhaps, even more insidious.

What’s more, the damage from 9/11 doesn’t just affect those who were there. The ripple effect of the pain inflicted that terrible day continues to affect and hurt many families, friends and loved ones. We found that many marriages and relationships dissolved or ended in unfortunate divorces after 9/11 because some individuals could not understand or accept the commitment, responsibilities or emotional baggage being carried by the responder they loved.

Yet the people we spoke with carry on with their lives. They shepherd their children to school, visit their mom, get promoted and fall in love. Since 9/11, some have retired, and some have moved on from EMS. Most remain with the agencies they love, the agency that has been their second home and source of comfort when they're down or depressed.

But what most understand now, with 10 years of hindsight, is that they belong to an exclusive, dreadful club. It''s a club none of them asked to join and every one of them would rather not have been inducted into. However, they recognize that they've been set apart from the rest of humanity—damaged in a way no one but other 9/11 responders and witnesses can understand. In fact, many of the responders told us that they will only talk about 9/11 with others who were there that day—other members of the club.

Many could benefit from counseling but have been reluctant to participate in it. But, after 10 years, several say they may finally be ready for it. It should be made available to them.
We found that counseling has been offered to the children of responders but, in many instances, not to spouses and significant others who have been left to deal with the ramifications of 9/11 on their own. They need help too.

Those who were hired after 9/11 must be sensitive to those who were there. And EMS managers must be mindful that assigning affected crews to the same response zones and locations as their original source of their emotional trauma is not advisable because the sights and sounds they will be forced to see and hear again can trigger horrible anger, anxiety and emotions in them.

It has been our great privilege to get to know these responders. They aren't super heroes. They're ordinary people who did the very best they could in extraordinary situations.
We wish we could've interviewed all of the 9/11 responders but we couldn't. However, we hope that what we've crafted for you are documents that present not just important historical facts about 9/11, but also the many command and control, accountability, resource management and emotional lessons that have been learned at each incident and must be passed on to others.

Connect: Have a thought or feedback about this? Add your comment now
Related Topics: Major Incidents, WMD and Terrorism, Out of the Darkness

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A.J. Heightman, MPA, EMT-P

JEMS Editor-in-Chief A.J. Heightman, MPA, EMT-P, has a background as an EMS director and EMS operations director. He specializes in MCI management.


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Teresa McCallion, EMT-B

 is a freelance public safety writer and the editor of EMS Insider living in Bonney Lake, Wash.


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