Thursday, June 2, 2011

9/11 Healing

On this coming September 11, it will be ten years since the greatest terrorist attack on American soil. Among the 2,753 people killed in the attack on New York City's World Trade Center were 343 firefighters and 60 police officers from the NYPD and the Port Authority. Terrorists also flew a passenger jet into the Pentagon, and a jetliner flown by terrorists crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The total death toll that day would be 2977.

The Mental Health Association of New York City held an emotional and compelling event Wednesday evening honoring New York City's "first responders." In particular, Fire Chief Joseph Pfeiffer, who had been among the first to respond to the World Trade Center that morning.

Chief Pfeiffer immediately set up a command post in one of the towers and began organizing the response. As he feverishly worked he saw his brother, Lt. Kevin Pfeiffer, across the lobby gathering his unit together. They acknowledged each other and then his brother led his team up the stairs to help rescue victims. It was the last time Chief Pfeiffer saw his brother alive.

As it happens, Jules and Gideon Naudet, a French film crew, had been working on a documentary about fire fighters at a nearby station. Jules was filming firefighters as they responded to a gas leak near the towers when, at 8:46am, the first plane hit the North Tower. He was swept up by his fire crew and quickly found himself side by side with Chief Pfeiffer. Jules captured the chaotic and terrifying scenes as victims and first responders filled the lobby. Confusion and panic were heightened when the South Tower was hit.

More than 17,000 people occupied the towers at the time of the attack. The camera recorded the sounds of bodies crashing to the ground, as some victims decided to die quickly rather than burn to death.

Naudet's camera was fixated on Chief Pfeiffer's shocked face when a huge rumbling sound began. The 110 story Twin Towers were collapsing, the South Tower at 9:59am and then the North Tower at 10:28am. The film records Chief Pfeiffer and his team as they frantically dashed for cover down a subway entrance in the lobby. Chief Pfeiffer made sure Naudet was with him. More than one thousand feet of concrete and steel pancaked all around them, shaking the earth and filling the air with a thick acrid dust. Miraculously the group survived but it took some time before they were able to escape the maze of destruction.

At the MHANYC event, Chief Pfeiffer, the Naudet brothers, and New York Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano stood together on a stage about fifteen blocks from ground zero and recounted the tragedy of 9/11. While the victims, their families and the city have worked hard to recover and rebuild, awful memories still haunt many them.

Almost instantly the Mental Health Association of New York City was called into action. In the immediate aftermath its mental health referral hotline, 1-800-Lifenet, played an important communications and referral role. And subsequently thousands of calls flooded the center as the recovery and healing process began. For some of those affected it will be a lifelong struggle.

Chief Pfeiffer now directs the FDNY's Center for Terrorism and Disaster Preparedness, which he founded after 9/11. And today the Mental Health Association of New York City continues to fulfill a need in the ongoing healing process. Its work during the 9/11 disaster now serves as a national model and has been used in subsequent national tragedies, such as Hurricane Katrina.

As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches, anxiety and stress will weigh heavily on many victims and their loved ones. The MHANYC stands ready to help. For those needing assistance, call 1-800-Lifenet, or go to:

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