Funny River man travels to disaster site with Red Cross

Residents make a difference at ground zero

Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2001

Martin Radvansky is trained to handle disaster situations. But after serving in relief efforts for two hurricanes, the magnitude of the World Trade Center destruction in New York was something even he had not witnessed before.

"I've been on a couple (relief missions) before," Radvansky said. "I think personally I had to go to New York to be a part of the big picture. It was a personal challenge to go there, to deal with traveling. To go and be a part of the whole thing was a reward of sorts."

Radvansky lives in Funny River and works as a realtor for Kenai Property Management Services in Kenai. He is also a trained family services technician volunteer with the American Red Cross.

In the aftermath of a disaster, he meets with victims to find out what their needs are and what help the Red Cross can give them. Usually this involves providing food, shelter and clothing to people who have lost their homes and belongings in a disaster.

Radvansky has served in this capacity twice before after two hurricanes. On Oct. 25 he set off to serve again, only this time the disaster wasn't a hurricane. He joined the Red Cross relief effort in New York after the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center for three weeks and returned Nov. 15.

"It didn't feel like the danger was over," said Claudia Knickerbocker, Radvansky's wife. "The biggest danger he's had to face after the hurricane is if they didn't have running water or electricity, so it put him out of his comfort zone a little but wasn't anything dangerous. This felt more like when he went to Vietnam. It was really a tough one, because it didn't feel like it's over. This time it was us at home, it's a whole different thing. I'm sure glad to have him home again."

While Radvansky was in New York, he worked in a Red Cross station interviewing people affected by the destruction of the towers.

"I didn't keep a count of how many people I talked to," Radvansky said. "At one time we were tracking numbers, but numbers don't matter because it's who you help that's important.

"The place opened at 9 a.m. From 9 to noon I could just deal with one family or with three, it just depended on what their needs were. Sometimes four or five hours with one family would not be uncommon."

Radvansky met with people who lived near the towers and had their homes damaged by the destruction and resultant smoke, dust and debris. He also met with people who were injured in the disaster and who worked in the trade towers and managed to escape.

"Some of them had worked there for 20 years, and they start thinking about all their friends that didn't make it out," he said. "It was pretty intense."

The Red Cross mainly provided the immediate needs of food, shelter and clothing for those left without by the disaster, Radvansky said. Red Cross workers also helped repair apartments in the area that were damaged but still livable.

For some, their homes were not damaged at all but were affected in other ways.

"A lot of people were just out of work because the company they worked for just disappeared," Radvansky said.

A big part of the job was just listening, Radvansky said, which could be more difficult than anything else he had to do.

"That's the hard part of it -- what do you say, what do you do?" he said. "Sometimes you know what to say or what to do, other times it's like 'uh, now what?' Lots of times you don't need to say anything. Sometimes you just let them do what they need to do and be an active listener. You want to fix everything, but sometimes the best thing to do is let them fix it themselves, which they need to do."

Mental health counselors were available to sit in on the interviews and talk with anyone who needed them. Radvansky utilized their help in many cases and said they were very good to have around.

"Basically people just need to tell their story," he said. "They need to tell it long enough until they can work through it. We talk with them and see what we can help them with, but a lot of times just listening is a big help."

The Red Cross station Radvansky worked at was not at ground zero, so he wasn't in the vicinity of the crumbled towers. During his three weeks in New York he visited a niece who lives in an apartment building six blocks from the towers. He could see the area from the apartment, but since it was night all he could see was work lights, he said.

"I thought about going," Radvansky said. "I could have visited the area, but in talking to people I had enough stories and had a good visit that way -- not that it was good, but I got a lot of exposure to it."

His wife, family and coworkers were very supportive about him going to New York, Radvansky said.

For Knickerbocker, supporting her husband was a way of aiding the relief effort.

"Our children and his coworkers discussed the fact that here we are at almost the farthest point away from New York and still in America, and in our own way we're contributing by helping him," Knickerbocker said. "He was able to help, and we felt good by being able to do something."

Radvansky has been a Red Cross volunteer for 15 years. Before that he held a paid Red Cross position at Fort Richardson. He became a Red Cross instructor trainer when he saw a need for more people to teach CPR and first aid classes.

He and his wife moved to the central peninsula in 1991 and he remains active with the Red Cross Service Delivery Unit based in Soldotna, which is part of the Southcentral Alaska chapter of the Red Cross. Radvansky has a counseling degree and has taken several Red Cross classes that make him eligible to serve in national disaster relief situations.

Classes are available on the peninsula for anyone who would like to be trained to respond to a disaster locally or nationally, he said.

Radvansky said he was well prepared with his Red Cross training and experience to do his job in New York, although it is hard to know what to expect in such an emotional situation.

His three weeks in New York were a good experience and he would be willing to go again if he is needed, Radvansky said.

"Job-wise there's a lot more to do," he said. "It's taken a long time to recover and they still are. I felt pretty good about being there. Just giving a hug or getting a hug from somebody you may have helped was big, very big."

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