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About a month ago on the show, I visited a New York restaurant named Nino's. All the food is donated -- all the staff volunteers -- to help Ground Zero workers. When disaster strikes, you'd be surprised how many people drop their jobs, their lives, to rush to the site and help.

Volunteers for the Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Services fan out around the globe to support survivors and family members of people lost in plane crashes. Reporter Michelle Kholos spent time with a team of Red Cross counselors last month in New York, after American Airlines Flight 587 crashed near Kennedy Airport.

Grief Counselors

by Michelle Kholos, 12/21/2001

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Imagine walking into a large room full of people -- hundreds of people -- and every single one of them has lost a loved one during the exact same moment of the exact same day. When a plane falls out of the sky, someone has to go into these rooms and care for the victims' families. This is where the Red Cross Aviation Incident Response Team comes in. These volunteers are on call for a month at a time, ready to leave their lives, get on a plane within four hours of being called -- no matter where they are in the country -- and fly to the site of a plane crash to provide help and comfort for as long as they're needed. I met some of these people just after American Airlines flight 587 crashed last month in New York. This was the seventh time Jerard Jacobs responded to a plane crash. The first was in 1989 when a United Airlines plane went down in Sioux City, Iowa.

Jacobs: It was pretty daunting. Our first exposure was three of us walking into a room that contained about 100 of the survivors from the air crash who were still in their original clothing, which was burned or soaked with kerosene, some of them were still bleeding -- and everyone was in the shock phase of the immediate aftermath, and it was an overwhelming moment.

Jacobs lives in South Dakota where he's a professor of psychology at the University. He just happened to be in New York when 587 went down. In fact, he was here training other mental health workers about how to respond to what are called "mass casualty disasters" -- tragedies where many lives are lost at once (like the World Trade Center) -- like flight 587. Jacobs says that while each plane crash is different, what family members tend to go through is all too familiar.

Jacobs: Prayer (and) bargaining, and acceptance, and there's a period of denial. I think in every crash there are people who pray that somehow their loved one got off the airplane for some reason just before it took off, or perhaps somehow they jumped from the airplane before it crashed.
Red Cross Headquarters: Hello this is Jill how can I help you? We will give them ID when they get there. ... further information will be given by their team leader. You're all set. No, you're not set -- you need a list.

Whenever there's a plane crash, the Red Cross sets up emergency headquarters somewhere near the site. For flight 587 it was the Ramada New Yorker Hotel. There, I met Red Cross workers who came in from as far away as Hawaii, and as close as a few blocks away. This is where volunteers are registered, given maps and subway instructions. It's where food and water are arranged for the families. And it's where debriefings -- counseling sessions, really -- are provided for the emergency workers to help them deal with the emotion of the experience. Nancy Gibalias is an MSN and MSW from upstate New York. This is the fourth time she's responded to a plane crash. Much to my surprise, Nancy tells me when she goes to a disaster site, she acts more like a compassionate friend than a psychological counselor. Or, as one of her co-workers told me, don't just do something -- stand there.

Gibalias: I think in the beginning, what we do is we really provide a comforting presence. Kind of order and peace in the midst of a very chaotic, overwhelming situation. You kind of stand back and assess what the needs might be. Families have a tendency to need to some privacy. When you feel you lost control over your life, that little bit of autonomy is very important. If people reach out, we may circulate with just comforting things, such as a bottle of water, a cup of tea, offering to get a plate of food, sitting down, and saying, "Would you like someone to sit with your for awhile?"
Robert Hayes: There is so little to say after saying, "I'm terribly sorry."
Robert Hayes is a psychologist and professor of counseling psychology at Ball State University in Indiana. For him, Flight 587 was plane crash number six.
Hayes: The first disaster I responded to of aviation was in Guam and it was a Korean airliner and almost all family members were Korean. We didn't speak their language and it didn't seem to matter a lot. Again we were with them, we supported them. There was a lot of communication without language.

People want to get as close as they can to the last place that their loved ones were alive. There is always the request to go to the crash site. Then we set up the family assistance center where we can accommodate a great number of people so that they can start getting information and the NTSB provides briefings to keep them up to date on information, the medical examiner and the disaster mortuary team is probably going to be asking questions of people to aid in indentification of remains. And these are quite painful experiences to go through. What what we provide is a presence that we are there with them.

Not only does that presence provide comfort, Jerard Jacobs says part of his job is to make sure family members aren't victimized a second time.
Jacobs: Generally, my first concern is ensuring that there is a level of protection for either the survivors or the family members depending upon where I'm working , ensuring they're protected from disaster tourists or disaster sight-seers who want to come in and experience the disaster.
Most of us would never put ourselves a situation where we'd witness so much pain. But these aviation response workers tell me their job is so satisfying… they can't imagine not doing it. They do, however, take great care to look out for their own mental health during these emotional times.
Gibalias: I think probably we all have some reservations when we're in the presence of such overwhelming grief. And your professional training does kick in and again you focus. That doesn't mean that when we're on our own time it isn't a difficult thing to process.
Jerard: Like the families and the survivors we often have to tell our story several times and sometimes that's with our family, sometimes with our friends, but there's details of our experiences that we will often share only colleagues because some of the information is confidential.
Hayes: I find that it's a little strange to be home for awhile. Things just don't seem to be quite as important when you put those into comparison-here are 260 people that have died// Worrying about someone's problem with their automobile that day or the fact that they didn't like their breakfast just doesn't seem to be very important.
In New York, I'm Michelle Kholos for the Savvy Traveler.