Surfside collapse: One year later - opinion

I felt honored to be able to accompany many of them on their own journey through the process, and I hope and pray that I succeeded in helping and alleviating some of their grief.

 THE WRITER assists a distraught family member following the Surfside disaster.  (photo credit: UNITED HATZALAH‏)
THE WRITER assists a distraught family member following the Surfside disaster.
(photo credit: UNITED HATZALAH‏)

Last year, I was part of United Hatzalah’s mission to assist in the treatment of those injured or affected by the collapse of the Champlain Tower in Surfside, Miami. It was a mission like no other that I have been a part of before or since. As a developmental psychologist who specializes in treating young children, I was the team member on the mission who was tasked with assisting any children who were suffering as a result of the building collapse.

Much to my surprise and the surprise of our entire team, there were very few children to treat. The families who were waiting to hear news of the fate of their loved ones didn’t bring the children to the family reunification center. The families who fled or were saved from the building sent their children to schools or daycares so that the children could at least continue with their regular schedule.

I ended up putting on a different hat during the mission and worked with the other responders in trying to identify individuals who needed emotional support and stabilization. During my time assisting others in Surfside I learned a number of valuable lessons, some of them not for the first time, but these ideas have stayed with me ever since and accompany me throughout my work.

Look for the helpers

One of my favorite lines is from Fred Rogers: “When bad things would happen in the news, my mother always told me – ‘Look for the helpers, you’ll always find people who are helping.’” Now, I was one of the helpers, and yet, I found myself astounded by the level of helping that was going on throughout the Surfside community.

 COL. GOLAN VACH, commander of the IDF National Rescue unit, stands near the partially collapsed residential building in Surfside, Florida, during search and rescue operations last year.  (credit: MARCO BELLO/REUTERS) COL. GOLAN VACH, commander of the IDF National Rescue unit, stands near the partially collapsed residential building in Surfside, Florida, during search and rescue operations last year. (credit: MARCO BELLO/REUTERS)

I met people from all over the country who came to help: social workers and psychologists, chaplains of every faith, food services workers, emergency services personnel... and of course, the community. We were a group of six people and one dog who came from Israel to assist in the relief effort and the community wasted no time in embracing us.

Community members went out of their way to take care of us and provided us with whatever we needed in order to allow us to do our jobs better. For example, there is no way that we could have gotten through the days as we did, without the hearty breakfast provided by our hosts. That breakfast was more than just food, it was an appreciation of our being there and for what we had come to try to do. It was caring for our physical and spiritual well-being, and an investment in our ability to pass that care on to the people we were there to help. It was helpers helping helpers. Is there any greater help than that?

There is agony in just waiting

When we were on our way to Florida, people wished us well: “We hope you’ll help lots of people.” While we helped many people, it came in a way that we were not altogether used to. In the hotel conference room that was repurposed as the family reunification center, the families of those who were missing in the collapse were there, waiting to hear if their loved ones were alive or dead, and they were hurting – the wait was hurting them.

We couldn’t take that hurt away: we had no news about their loved ones and we couldn’t make the search go faster. Moreover, the families didn’t want anything from us, they just wanted to know if their loved ones were alive or dead, information which we did not have. Thus, our task became supporting the family members in their wait. We sat with them in their agony and just waited.

By being there, we were able to hold their agony for a while, process it a little and give it back to them a bit more organized and, hopefully, with the knowledge that they weren’t alone in their wait. It was still agony and they were still waiting, but we were in it with them and that seemed to help.

The importance of being useful

While they were waiting, the IDF Search and Rescue Unit that was sent to assist in the relief efforts requested that the family members give over information about their missing loved ones: possessions they may have had with them in their collapsed apartments and anything that they could tell us about the layout of the apartments themselves. This information was used in the search for the victims of the collapse and to identify which apartment in the rubble belonged to whom.

However, this became so much more than a request for information. It gave the family members a reason for being there all that time and something to do while they were waiting. By participating in this task, the family members went from passive bystanders to active assistants.

They weren’t just waiting anymore; they were part of the search for their loved ones and they were doing everything they could to help find them. This sense of purpose that suddenly permeated the air was palpable and the lesson in mitigating the potential effects of trauma through acts of doing was potent.

It’s not just ‘stuff’

In Surfside, there were two groups of people with whom we worked: the family members of those who went missing in the south half of the building who were waiting to hear about their loved ones and the families who were evacuated from the north half (which was later brought down). Having worked with the first group, I would have thought my capacity for empathy for the second would be challenged. After all, they were all alive, they were just missing their stuff– their personal belongings. But as I heard their stories, I understood that their experience of loss was different but no less poignant than that of the first group. Documents, pictures, antiques, memorabilia – people had lost the tangible effects of their entire lives, and sometimes that of generations before them. I learned that loss takes many forms and that our human capacity for empathy is enormous.

It’s all in the questions

Twice a day, the fire commissioner held summary briefings for the waiting family members at the family reunification center. We were there, too, in the back of the room. The summaries, unfortunately, quickly became monotonous but the questions were fascinating, and I learned to listen to them very carefully. For example, in one session, a family member wondered aloud whether larger machines could be used to more quickly remove pieces of the building, so as to get to the remains of the victims faster.

A minute later, a different waiting family member, who was at a different stage in processing the disaster, asked whether it wouldn’t be possible to lay down hoses and shoot water down into the ruins so that anyone trapped could drink. The questions revealed where in the process of pre-grieving the family members were.

We were there to help them through that process, so for us, these question-and-answer sessions became extremely important to listen to in order to better understand the people with whom we were dealing. We didn’t have to have any answers – that wasn’t our job. Our job was to listen to their questions, to be there with them in whatever space their questions showed them to be and to help them along to the next step in their own process.

I felt honored to be able to accompany many of them on their own journey through the process, and I hope and pray that I succeeded in helping and alleviating some of the grief that the tragedy brought to them and their families.

The writer is a developmental psychologist who specializes in treating young children in the public sector, as well as in her own private practice. She has been volunteering with United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit for nearly four years and currently serves as the co-coordinator of the Internal Psychotrauma Section, dedicated to helping UH’s own emergency responders after difficult calls.