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Trauma Experts Fan Out Across New York - 2001-09-20

Mental health professionals and members of the clergy are fanning out across New York City and its suburbs, trying to help people deal with overwhelming grief and shock in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

Trauma experts say the resiliency of the human spirit continues to amaze them, particularly in the aftermath of the horrific attack of two hijacked jetliners on the World Trade Center. More than 5,400 people are missing, including hundreds of emergency workers who presumably lost their lives trying to save others.

Thousands of people who worked in the enormous Trade Center complex survived, running down swaying staircases to emerge into a sea of smoke and flames. Thousands more witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers. Television brought into homes around the world the horrific sight of people jumping out of windows to escape the fire.

Psychologist Michael Cohen is consulting with the city on how to best handle an incident that has shocked the entire city and traumatized large numbers. The first step, he says, is to reassure people about their safety. "What we understand now is that to recover from trauma you cannot recover unless you are sure that that trauma will not happen again," says Mr. Cohen. "Otherwise you are in a coping strategy. One could claim here that that is the kind of state that we are in."

A critical tool for healing, Mr. Cohen says, is for individuals to understand that a larger community than themselves had been affected. Psychologist Michael Cohen says some survivors of the tragedy will feel guilty. "Also, we know from trauma reactions from those people closest to the event, who witnessed the event first hand are going to be abnormally haunted by the imagery," Mr. Cohen says. "In terms of survivor's guilt there is a very well-known dynamic of "Why me? Why was it not me?" Some people find solace in religion. Other people say it was just by the luck of the draw [random chance], the roll of the dice that it was someone else. It is very hard to live with this." Mr. Cohen recommends everyone effected by the terrorist attack try to return to a normal routine as quickly as possible.

The Reverend Jeremy Del Rio is working with the "Ground Zero" Clergy Task Force, an inter-denominational group of 75 religious leaders who are maintaining an around-the-clock presence at "Ground Zero," the epicenter of the destruction, and at hospitals, morgues and counseling centers. "The other day we went down and the fire chief on duty, we asked if we could pray for him,' Mr. Del rio says. "As radio messages were coming in, we paused so he could respond and instead he covered his radio because of the solace that just a simple prayer offered to him."

Mr. Del Rio says he is hearing terrible stories of devastation and desperation from rescue workers. "One of our church members is a steel worker who responded on Wednesday. He tells of how he was uncovering shoes and grabbing them out and they were attached to limbs and nothing more," he said. "So he was calling our church office every hour just looking for some sanity, something to keep him grounded because the desperation and the demoralization of these workers was so overwhelming."

Trauma experts recommend people return to their normal schedules as soon as possible and do not neglect basics such as eating and sleeping. Troubled individuals, they counsel, should not hesitate to go the crisis centers that have sprung up all over New York.