Today (Wednesday) I'm taking in a conference on the psychological impact of disaster, being held in Brooklyn Center. It features several panels about the I-35W bridge collapse which include victims of the disaster and responders. I'm hoping I'll be able to find a wireless connection to live blog a few seminars. If not, there'll be a large post later on today.(1 Comments)
If there is one job that most people probably don't want, it may well be Rev. Jeffrey Stewart's, the director of the Minneapolis Police Chaplain Corps. His job is to tell people their loved one is dead.
"It's not for everybody," he told me during a break in a conference in Brooklyn Center today, exploring the psychological footprints of disaster. He and chaplain Linda Koelman were the people who broke the bad news to the families of the I-35W bridge collapse, the focus of much of the conference. "One of the things that we look for in chaplains and the type of chaplain that we've been able to get in Minneapolis is people who have a genuine calling for working with people in crisis and who have a belief that because we're there, this terrible situation will be better because we spent the time to talk to them, to make the notification in person, to help put them in touch with the resources they need."
"We see ourselves as the ones that walk the families through the valley of the shadow of death," he said. And after a relative is told of the death, he said notifiers should have nothing to ever do with the family again. "Like a smell that might take you back to your mother's kitchen, we remind people of the death of their loved one and the healing process can't begin. We get hugs sometimes. We get handshakes and then people say 'thank you. I hope I never see you again.'"
Stewart says he doesn't deviate from a standard procedure. "We ask the person if they know someone named (name of deceased), and they'll say something like, 'yes, he's my son.' We never want to notify the wrong person, so we have to establish the identity of who we're talking to. And then I'll say, 'I have some very bad news. Your son is dead.' We don't say how he died and we don't use colloquialisms, and then we let them ask questions."
Stewart and Koelman were a constant presence at the family assistance center for the I-35W collapse. The center closed 10 days after the disaster, but before the last body was recovered. In cases involving mass casualties, he said, "everyone is afraid they'll be the last family there." When the center closed, Stewart and Koelman kept in touch with families of the missing two to three times a day. When the last body was recovered, he was already heading for the home of the victim. "We had a race against the media," he said. "It was a huge sigh of relief for the victim's spouse and we beat the media by 18 minutes. We were happy on the way home."
Listen to the comments of Rev. Jeffrey Stewart
Posted at 5:32 PM on April 9, 2008
by Bob Collins
It's been almost nine months since Lindsay Petterson rode her car from the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis into the water of the Mississippi River. She says people are losing "their understanding nature" and thinking she and other bridge victims "should be over it by now."
She's not over it by a longshot. "It's just begun," she said.
Pettersen told her story today to a conference of public safety and medical professionals, examining the psychological aspect of mass disaster.
Last August 1, she was on her way home from her job in Shoreview, where she worked in a group setting with children with mental health issues. "I heard the most distinct sound like a beam cracking in half, and my world changed forever," she said. "I was in freefall. I don't remember the fall, but I remember thinking 'there's no way I'm going to survive this.'"
Her car sank and filled with water immediately. Somehow, although she doesn't remember how, she broke a window and surfaced, but not before "I changed my thought process to accepting this is how I was going to die."
Pulled to safety by one of the construction workers who rode the bridge to the water, she ended up in the hospital with a fractured vertebrae for five days. Her physical injuries healed; her post-trauma stress has not. Not completely.
"I have a problem being in man-made structures. I walk into elevators and back out," she said. "This roof as I'm speaking is making noises and it's freaking me out. I have nightmares of falling that are as real as it was that day. I fear death. There was a tornado warning in my town, and I was sure it was going to come right down on my apartment building, and I would be the only one to die."
Petterson says she's sometimes angry, but mostly she's sad. "It's the most lonely feeling I've ever had in my life. I know that this sad person is not who I was. I know it's not who I will be. But it's who I am now."
She's unemployed now because she started thinking that maybe, if she made one of the kids mad at work, they'd hurt her. "I worked in a group home and I tried to help the kids but it was at a time when I needed help, too." She says she's hoping for the perfect job to come along.
In the meantime, she wants people to be nicer, and be more understanding about the psychological impact of the disaster. She pointed to comments that are attached to news sites' articles. "There's a lot of mean people who have a lot of mean things to say. It's just not helpful," she said.
She writes occasionally on a section of the Caring Bridge Web site. In her last entry -- last week -- she wrote:
I was also asked to speak on a panel at a conference next week about Disaster Response. I'm very honored that I will be able to share my story, both on that day and since. I think I'm going to go find a nice spot to enjoy the sunshine and do some reading. Thanks for putting up with my griping...
Nobody, for the most part, likes to go into a room and be the person nobody wants to see. Newspeople, as far as I know, learn to accept it and we tell ourselves it's part of the job and a small price to pay for preserving truth and democracy and whatever other blather we come up with.
But the real truth? People in my business need to stop rationalizing traumatizing innocent people over some fictitious justification. And they need to figure out a way to do that while still being able to tell people what the heck is going on.
At the conference in Brooklyn Park on Wednesday (see several entries below), public safety and behavioral health professionals analyzed the I-35W bridge tragedy and planned for the next big disaster, considering challenges such as counseling, food, shelter, medicine, rescue equipment, organizing volunteers and cooperation among the dozens of entities that are involved in these sorts of things.
The I-35W bridge disaster brought out the best in these emergency workers of all stripes, especially given the bureaucratic nightmare of it all. "It was a federally-owned bridge, operated and maintained by the state, which fell into a river controlled by the county, and the riverbanks were owned by the city," said conference organizer Jonathan Bundt .
But a common theme emerged among many speakers on the psychological footprint of disaster -- the trauma inflicted by reporters.
Granted public safety folks and journalists have always had an adversarial relationship, and there's usually a good reason for that. But when a bridge falls down, and families are in unimaginable pain, we -- the media -- shouldn't be making it worse.
"The media has got to fill the time," said Bundt, "but every time they'd report something, we'd get inundated by the families and 75 to 80 percent of the time, the information was inaccurate."
Bundt said the real problem last August with the family assistance center he set up, is that it was set up at the Holiday Inn, near the bridge, a site too accessible to the public and reporters.
"All the families had to walk through the lobby to get to the room," Bundt said, invoking an image of a gauntlet of reporters anxious to know what it feels like to think your loved one may be dead. The public has a right to know, one supposes. But doesn't the public already know the answer to that question?
So in addition to the other challenges the behavioral health specialists faced that August night, among the biggest was the psychological trauma inflicted by reporters.
"The news people are never, ever on your side," Rev. Jeffrey Stewart told the attendees on Wednesday, as he described racing the media to be the first to tell a woman that her husband was dead. (See post)
Leesa Dentinger, whose cousin, Christina Sacorafas died in the collapse, told the group that among the best things the family assistance center did, was "keeping the media away from us."
A Minneapolis police official, the group was told, surreptitiously arranged a secret visit to the bridge site for family members, so that they could look over the side of the 10th Street Bridge and not worry about the media. She said he got in trouble for that.
Another person told me a reporter posed as someone who was related to a bridge victim to try to get into the area where the families were.
To be sure, not every journalist was -- or is -- a jerk. Bundt said many gave him their business cards, and he put them on a wall with a sign for the families that if they wanted to talk, they could take their pick. "Some people need to tell their story," he said. It was a remarkably civilized and effective way to get a story, and perhaps it should be part of planning for the next disaster.
Behind the scenes, Bundt was dealing with the "diversity" of the families. Not just ethnic and racial, but rural people who didn't understand the city; and families of divorce coming together in a not-always-pleasant way. "When trauma hits, you can't hold it in," he said, noting that often family members had to get away from other family members.
It's a long-standing dilemma for journalists: how to cover a story and not make it worse. Before leveling the criticism on Wednesday, each person prefaced it with "the media was just doing its job, but...." And perhaps that's the first step journalists can take to prepare for the next disaster: getting it through our heads -- and yours -- that making things worse isn't part of the job.
"I hope you didn't take my comments personally," Rev. Stewart said to me afterwards. I did... but not for the reason he thinks.(1 Comments)