A report from Ground Zero and environs
By S. A. Unger
In the long hours following the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, many health-care professionals trained to respond to disasters found themselves in limbo as they awaited a tidal wave of patients that instead arrived at their doors as a wayward trickle. Instead of physicians equipped to deal with the most devastating of physical traumas, what was needed were physicians equipped to treat psychic trauma on a scale previously unimaginable in our country.
Anthony T. Ng, M.D. ’91, medical director of Disaster Psychiatry Outreach (DPO), headquartered in New York City, contacted his former teacher, Cynthia Pristach, M.D. ’83, associate professor of clinical psychiatry in the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, also a member of DPO, two weeks after the attacks. On September 27, two days after Ng’s call, Pristach and two of her UB-based DPO colleagues, Linda Pessar, associate professor of clinical psychiatry, and Helen Aronoff, M.D. ’92, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, boarded a plane to New York City.
At the Family Assistance Center, located in the cavernous Pier 94 on the Hudson River, Pessar and Aronoff found thousands of people being served by such organizations as the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Social Security Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as the mayor’s office and the city’s police and fire departments.
"These were the families of the janitors, the secretaries and the cafeteria workers in the World Trade Center," says Pessar. "Most had scanty resources to begin with, and many saw all those resources disappear. They needed to be advised about psychological services and given practical advice."
Within minutes of arriving at the Pier, Pessar met an extremely agitated woman whose apartment was several blocks from the World Trade Center. "She kept repeating, ‘I’m not crazy.’ She had terrible post-traumatic stress disorder," says Pessar. "I reassured her that she had a well-known and predictable syndrome."
A wonderfully dignified woman in her mid-50s appeared outwardly composed. "[She] talked to us about her faith, explaining that she was very religious," says Pessar. The woman, a receptionist for one of the administrators at the World Trade Center, had been in the 1993 bombing and had escaped without incident. On September 11, one of the planes hit the tower very close to the floor on which she worked. The ceiling fell in, but she was unscathed. "She thought that was a sign from God, that God had created a shield around her to protect her, and that calmed her," recounts Pessar. The woman did escape, Pessar relates. "But, after telling us her story, she said, ‘I’m a religious woman, and my faith is very important to me, but I’ve been through two bombings, and I need counseling.’"
As intense and draining as these patient encounters were, Aronoff and Pessar found that their work didn’t end when they left the Pier. Each night when their shift was over, they boarded one of the buses provided by the city for people traveling to and from the Pier to receive services.
One woman they met on the bus had lost her fiancé, who worked at the World Trade Center as a carpenters’ supervisor. He was called in to work that day and had died in the attacks. "They had planned to marry and they had custody of his two small children," recalls Pessar. "She was accompanied by the man’s sister, who herself had recently been widowed and had no living relative except her brother. So these poor, sad women had come to the Pier only to discover that because the woman was not legally married to the carpenter, she was not entitled to any benefits."
Aronoff recounts one of her most lasting memories of Ground Zero: seeing families of the victims who were brought to the site by Red Cross workers to say their final good-byes.
"The first day I was at Ground Zero, the Red Cross began escorting family members by ferry boat from the Family Assistance Center over to Ground Zero in groups of about 50 at a time. When the first boatload of families came, it was a very moving experience because we were literally standing at the site of the twin towers and all of a sudden from one of the side streets came a group of people who were clearly not rescue workers. They were holding on to each other, holding teddy bears, holding flowers, and were absolutely silent as they walked past the towers. Spontaneously, every one of us working at the site took off our hard hats and held them to our hearts."