Peer Support at Ground Zero

Interview with Engineer Ann Peggs

I was hired as a firefighter by the Allouez Fire Department in northern Wisconsin in 1979, and about ten years later left to become a firefighter for Green Bay. I grew up in this area, and I briefly worked for a paper mill and manufacturing company before becoming a firefighter.

I went to the World Trade Center site at the end of September, 2001, with the Peer Support Team of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin. We were there for a week; I spent five days working at the site.

The Peer Support Team was created about five years ago. It consists of firefighters from around the state who volunteer to provide this service, overseen by a psychiatrist who provides our training. We have about fifteen people on the team right now; eight of us went to New York, including a qualified clinician who is not a firefighter, and a firefighter who is also an ordained minister. The folks in New York had requested our presence; I'm not sure whether it was coordinated through the IAFF or through FEMA, but the request came through the International.

By the time we were sent, they had already set up a system for teams going down to the site. We were paired up with another person from our team, and we wore ID that said "FDNY Peer Support." They asked us not to wear turnout gear, because they specifically didn't want us doing physical work at Ground Zero, or even looking like we were there to do that kind of work: it was really important to the FDNY that their people be doing the digging and recovery.

Instead, what we were there for was to strike up conversations with the workers. So we went to the site, to the respite centers, anywhere there'd be a gathering of individuals we thought we could talk to. This approach to peer counseling was surprisingly effective. There was always some kind of ice-breaker: for example, your ID said where you were from, and that you were a professional firefighter. Since I'm from Wisconsin, I took a lot of good-natured static about being a cheesehead.

The Red Cross had a similarly casual approach to counseling. A lot of their workers appeared to be volunteers who were doing things like cleaning tables, but if you watched them, pretty soon they'd be sitting down talking with someone who was in tears. They found it very effective to have a presence in the respite centers where people were eating. They had flyers out on the tables reminding you, "This is what to watch for..." and "Don't feel you're the only person who's going through this."

We carried around small laminated note cards with a quote from Father Mychal Judge on the front. It's called "Mychal's Prayer," and a lot of people have heard about it by now. It goes:

Lord, take me where you want me to go,
Let me meet who you want me to meet,
Tell me what you want me to say,
And keep me out of your way.

On the other side of the card was a listing of all of the FDNY's Counseling Services Unit's signs of what to watch for, to help you figure out whether you need to reach out for help. We gave a lot of the cards out; many of the firefighters were already wearing them strapped to their helmets.

I think that's the main reason they asked for someone with a religious background on our team, because of Father Mychal and because with such a traumatic event, a lot of the firefighters and other workers were reaching out to their own faiths. To have someone at the site wearing a chaplain's hardhat made it that much easier. Plus it's also a trust factor, so people didn't have to worry at all about confidentiality.

I used Father Mychal's prayer a lot. Our purpose was not to talk, but to listen, and you just hoped you got guided to the right people to listen. And knowing how sensitive everything was and is there, hoping the things you did say didn't add to the pain. I targeted EMS somewhat, because I felt that being a paramedic, I could converse with them more readily. And certainly I had some of my best conversations with the EMS people.

They also had teams that went to fire stations, who would meet with the crews there and try and open up a line of dialogue. That was very well organized. Psychologists and psychiatrists from the FD would go along with them, which was a way to introduce the team members, and also give the firefighters someone they could contact afterwards.

When we first arrived at Ground Zero, I was first struck by how there wasn't any color. It was a very bright, sunny clear day, but the entire area just seemed colorless. Our team had been as well prepared as possible by others who had experienced it the week before, but it was still strange. And it certainly was bizarre to have the area look like a construction site. A lot of people have talked about the smell, but that was mostly later on. When we were there, it was mostly just fire and smoke, which wasn't that bad for firefighters, because we're used to that old wet, constantly smoldering thing.

At that time, they were still finding stairwells and pockets. Seeing that for the first time was hard. You could tell right away, because everything would stop on one side of the site. Large numbers of firefighters would line the area, lining a pathway up the pile. They'd hand equipment down first, and then the flag-draped body would come down.

I did not experience as much personal emotional difficulty as I thought I might. It was more difficult the longer you had been there, and that's certainly why I still have ongoing concerns for everyone. I cannot imagine what the long-term effects are going to be on these people. To have it be so long before you know what happened to your co-workers, and continuing to work at the site and go to funerals and put in their regular duty days... I don't know how they did it. Trying to support each other, and the ongoing work and effort they put into supporting the families, it's just going to keep draining them.

We were debriefed at the end of each eight-hour shift by one of the psychologists who was there all the time; they would meet with us to make sure things had gone well and address any of our concerns. As we were going out, we'd spend a few minutes talking with the team that was going in, while we swapped vehicles, and that helped make things a little easier.

My heart really went out to the chaplains who worked in the morgue. I spoke briefly with one of the NYC morgue workers who was there in 18-20 hour shifts. I'm sure he was hired to work in the city morgue, sliding carts back and forth, and now here he was down at the ruins of the World Trade Center. Often the people who found a body would go into the morgue with the chaplain, and the chaplain would say something over the body before they did anything else.

From the very first day we were there, people came up and said how much it meant to them that there was that much support, that people would come from all over the country to help. This went on all week.

Someone had arranged for a boat that ran from New Jersey directly into the back side of the site, into a cordoned-off area, where family members of rescue workers who had died there could come and view the site and leave a memento. They put support teams on there, and NYC firefighters, and chaplains, and shuttled these boats back and forth throughout the day, so these people didn't have to come through the main gate. They gave them a moment of privacy, showed them where the person was last known to be working, told them what they were last known to be doing. It's wonderful that someone had the sense to do these things: how thoughtful and compassionate and sensitive people can be, to have the foresight to know this was a good idea.

I truly think my perspective on life in general has changed forever. When I first came back to Green Bay, this was very strong. Everything seemed very petty. I didn't have a lot of patience for things that other people felt were very important. In the big scheme to me, those things did not seem important. I think I've backed off and gotten better with time, because I'm removed from it, but certainly I know I have a deeper appreciation for my family and my co-workers, and a better sense of my mortality. A better appreciation of day-to-day life.

I thought I might come back with a greater fear of going on calls, not like something like the World Trade Center might happen in Green Bay, but with that great a loss of life, you can't help but think about it. I was surprised by the fact that it didn't make me fearful. My husband is also an engineer, and we're on the same shift at the same station. If he goes out and I'm not on the call, I think of it, but when we all go out, I don't. Also, I'm a lot better at understanding the fire tactics decisions by command when they decide to pull people out.

On the way home from New York, just by chance, I was alone. One of the biggest things that helped my recover was that I wrote the whole way home. They asked us to keep journals, and writing it was helpful both immediately and in the long term. I didn't reread what I'd written until I was asked about six weeks ago to speak on how my faith helped me while I was there. I had written a lot in the journal about that.

The experience has definitely strengthened my faith. I knew the opposite was possible, that an event that horrible could damage your faith. The fact that I was there three weeks after the attack, when some people had moved on to where they were trying to come to terms with the anger and the bitterness, certainly made a difference. The way it helped me was that my faith is where I turn when I need help.

I can't say a huge number of people came to me and poured out their soul. That's not what happened. But I do feel like the people who wanted to speak to me could and did. I think a huge part of the effectiveness of us being there was that we were there at all. Knowing we were there, that they weren't alone, was helpful for a lot of people.

A huge part of having the peer support team being all firefighters is that that's who firefighters want to talk to. We know what it's like in the fire station, even if it's tiny little Green Bay that will never experience anything on this scale.

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