Monday, January 18, 2010

The New Normal for 9-11 Rescuers in Haiti

The New York Times website has an article today about a team of first responders from New York who are working to find survivors in the rubble of Port-au-Prince.  There are eighty people from an urban search and rescue team there right now, pulling the living and the dead from the ruins.  Yesterday they found four survivors.  The article points out the direct parallels between their work looking for survivors of the collapsed World Trade Center and their work now.

Some of the things the searchers have to say are very familiar to those who have experience with traumatized people.  One firefighter commented,
I can’t forget the smell of death from New York, and I can smell it right now. Sniff in the air. That’s it. Once it’s in your head it doesn’t come out.
What this man is describing is a strong sensory memory.  You've probably heard the adage that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory.  I don't know if that's true, but it certainly is true that, at moments of great stress, our senses are heightened and much more likely to make it into our long term memory.  This man isn't just saying he smells death, he's saying he smells death and associates it with New York.  This is quite understandable.

Later in the article, another firefighter remarked,
When you have your head in the hole, you forget where you are.  You could be anywhere really. And that person you’re looking for could be anywhere. It’s real simple though. You want to get them out alive.
Certainly this sentiment is admirable.  But I suspect that his description of forgetting where he is isn't for dramatic effect or poetic impact.  People who go through traumatic events who are then placed in very similar situations, or in situations their minds have encoded as being similar, can experience disorientation.  When things are similar enough, you actually aren't sure whether you're in the previous event or the current one.  And if you're not ready for it, it can be extremely scary.

I don't know how much the current search, rescue and recovery operation is actually triggering these responders and how much it is just reminding them of their past experience.  There is a difference, and one is much more distressing than the other.  I hope that when they return to the U.S. there is a good CISM team ready to help them, both with what they're seeing now and with what it brings back about what they saw 8 years ago.  Both are real.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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