It can be difficult to find much good in the biggest terrorist event in the history of the United States, but Envoy Craig Fanning, stationed at the Kenai Salvation Army Church, said he was thankful for his experience serving as a crisis counselor at ground zero in New York after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"I think my experience was good for me and good for those I dealt with," he said. "I was happy to go because I was trained for that. I hope it's nothing I ever have to do again, and I hope nobody has to do anything like this again. But I am thankful that the Salvation Army thought enough of me to send me, and I'm very glad that I was able to help."
Fanning has taken classes in crisis counseling and has worked on several state Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) teams. He received training in this field 12 years ago and has kept up that certification since then.
His position entails debriefing emergency personnel, like firefighters, paramedics and policemen, who respond to crises or disasters. Crisis counselors talk to emergency personnel and help them understand that the feelings of grief, fear, anger and frustration that they may experience after being in a crisis situation are normal.
Fanning was asked to go to ground zero in New York about a month after the attack on the World Trade Center. He hadn't served on a disaster call before this trip but has been a police department chaplain in Anchorage and Kodiak, received critical incident training through the Coast Guard in Kodiak and was taking a counseling class when he was asked by the Salvation Army divisional commander in Anchorage to respond to the call for crisis counselors.
Fanning spent 10 days in early October in New York working at one of the six relief sites the Salvation Army had set up at ground zero. There were two kitchen sites and four dehydration sites that assisted emergency workers, including police, firefighters, construction workers and paramedics, by providing food, water, aspirin, eye wash and other items.
Crisis counselors were stationed at each site to talk with the emergency personnel and make sure the staff at the relief sites were not becoming overwhelmed by the situation.
"We talked to people that looked like stress was a factor in them and tried to decide which was stress and which was fatigue," Fanning said.
The main part of Fanning's job was talking with people, he said. Fanning would converse with anyone coming from the disaster site, either individually or in groups. He worked 12 hour shifts and spoke with up to 100 people during a shift, he said.
Fanning built a rapport with some of the emergency workers during his 10 days there and got to know a little about their backgrounds and personal lives, which helped in determining how they were dealing with the situation.
"Everybody has a story at ground zero, and it was enjoyable listening to them," Fanning said. "The fun part is just listening and talking, being available to let people know that what they're feeling is normal or crossing the line."
The role of a crisis counselor is to help people deal with their immediate reactions and feelings of stress during or immediately following a crisis situation. People may need additional long-term counseling after the situation is over.
"We're not professionals so we don't want to give analysis," Fanning said. "We just watch for areas that go beyond normal reactions."
Fanning dealt with all types of people at the site, from rescue workers to victims and people who had lost loved ones. One woman Fanning spoke with had lost eight members of her family in the disaster and had just come to the site for the first time.
"The stories were tough for me," Fanning said. "Some were pretty personal."
One paramedic Fanning spoke with had been running toward Tower One with his partner just after the first plane hit. Before entering the building, his partner was killed by someone who jumped from the tower. As traumatic as this experience was it most likely saved the paramedic's life because the tower collapsed shortly after his partner was killed. If the paramedic hadn't been slowed down, he would have been in the tower when it collapsed.
"He was having a great deal of guilt about being alive and people saying he's a hero and he was adamant that he was not," Fanning said. "Part of it was because of the lost life and he was becoming physically angry over people wanting to recognize him and give him things in New York."
Fanning suggested the paramedic could accept the gifts and money people were trying to give him and donate it to widows from his department or to some other relief fund as an alternative to getting angry.
The help crisis counselors provide at a disaster site is a type of band-aid for the emotional problems emergency workers and other victims of a disaster will face in the long term, Fanning said. Right now firefighters and emergency workers are kept so busy that they don't have time to face their grief. Once life in New York returns more to normal the real emotional problems will surface.
"The serious point is going to come when they start pulling firefighters off the site and assign the police department away from there," Fanning said. "When anniversaries and birthdays and those year markers come up, that's when the real crisises in their lives are going to happen."
There were firefighter suicides for two years after the Oklahoma City bombing, Fanning said. Officials in New York are trying to keep that from happening to their emergency workers.
"I have confidence that the city is taking steps to protect their people in those times," Fanning said. "They are staying on top of the situation and are aware of what their needs are going to be."
The crisis counselors themselves talked to other counselors to make sure they were not becoming overwhelmed. Fanning also attended church services when he wasn't working. He had never been to New York before so that added another level of stress to the trip.
"Going to New York scared the living daylight out of me," Fanning said. "I've been an Alaskan all my adult life and I love it here. I had always heard such horror stories of New York and was fearful to go. Those fears were dispelled -- it was a wonderful place with wonderful people, and there was no basis for the fear built up in my mind."
The experience ended up being a good one for Fanning, he said.
"I haven't lost sleep. God was very kind to me in all that and kept it very professional for me," he said. "I just have a very fulfilled feeling, so I'm very pleased about that. I was unsure how I would feel getting home, whether I would have any residual feelings, but I feel very good about the way it went while I was there."
Fanning first came to Kenai in 1976 and started the Kenai Salvation Army Church. He moved out of Alaska for schooling in 1978 and returned to Kenai in 1981. He moved away again in 1991 and returned with his wife Jeannie in May to be stationed at the church. The Fannings plan to retire in Kenai.
Fanning has talked to several groups about being a crisis counselor and his experience in New York and is happy to answer questions for anyone curious about it.
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