Reflections of a 9/11 mental health volunteer
By Scott Hinkle • Guest Columnist | Twenty years ago on September 14, I was one of only two passengers on a U.S. Airways flight from North Carolina to LaGuardia Airport in New York City to volunteer for the American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Team, assisting families with processing the deaths of their loved ones. As part of the initial team to develop a rapid death certificate response, we met in Brooklyn and planned our program for completing the official certificates of death for grieving families.
This was an unusual endeavor in that typically a death certificate cannot be administered without a body. For each family, I completed a computer check of the lost family member’s name to see if the loved one could be found in the hospital database — sadly, every time the screen reflected “no match for entry.”
Over the next two weeks, I trained fresh mental health volunteers on how to coordinate family assistance and set up appointments with our 70 pro bono lawyers who were doing the paperwork to move the death certificate process forward as seamlessly and quickly as possible. Each family member was instructed to bring in a DNA sample from a comb, brush, or preferably underwear so that this evidence could be filed with the death certificate application. Once the death certificate was in hand, the family could process life insurance claims and collect other benefits.
On my first day setting up the space for the families and the legal process of filing for the death certificate of a loved one without a body, we set up counseling spaces for people to process their grief and reflect on what had happened. Psychiatrists were onsite to administer medicines for people who were overstressed or could not sleep. NYPD officers were assigned to me to help with logistics. One officer had bandages on his arms and neck from debris hitting him while on duty at Tower Two.
Hundreds of extra stuffed bears that had been warehoused following the Oklahoma City bombing were sent to us to distribute to the families we were working with. As small as these tokens appeared to be, I would often see people clutching a bear tight to their chest, knowing that this donation from another devasted city was comforting.
About five days into processing the 1,013 families I personally worked with, we began escorting groups of 50 family members down the Hudson River by boat to Ground Zero to memorialize lost loved ones with donated flowers, letters, and photographs. Each time we brought a group to the area, the workers would turn around, face the families, remove their helmets, and bowed their heads in respect for about 30 seconds — then it was back to searching through the pile.
During my time in NYC immediately following the terrorist attacks, I had many experiences that 20 years later seem as if they were yesterday. Flying in a passenger jet with only two people on board, seeing Ground Zero’s devastation from a bird’s eye view, hearing my footsteps echo off the empty walls of one of the busiest airports in the world, and walking through an empty, unlit Times Square. As unreal as these moments were, more profound was the pain and fear in the family’s eyes that I worked with for about 17 hours per day. One mother lost her husband and only son, two sisters each lost their husbands, and one young mother with three children had lost their father. Over the days, similar stories were repeated over and over. Unbelievable loss for families who also were dealing with the daily rumors of further attacks. In fact, a SWAT team accompanied us to Ground Zero so the families had some sense of safety.
As a professional psychologist, I have given several talks around the country as well as interviews about my 9/11 experience. Twenty years later, there are numerous memories including NYC chefs volunteering to cook for us at the Family Assistance Center, organizing people to watch after children, counseling people who were literally scared to death, helping people accept the loss of their loved ones, and assisting some of the hundreds of first responders with their own level of grief and fatigue.
My job was to help as best I could, holding it together all day and into the long evenings. But at night, I would go back to my hotel and cry harder than I ever had. Yet, my most indelible memory is simply the hollow and sullen look in the eyes of the people we worked with, as well as my admiration for all the volunteers that helped NYC’s families cope with an event that none of us could have imagined.