Islanders help recovery efforts

Smullin -
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While the cleanup from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., is no longer making front page news on Whidbey Island every day, it is the No. 1 thing on the minds of islanders who have signed up to help at Ground Zero.

The help is not the kind most people would think of at first. Construction and demolition workers from the New York and Washington areas have the lifting, hauling, and disposal part under control. Rescue operations ceased long ago when the chances of anyone surviving the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers or the airplane crash at the Pentagon passed.

But now is when the real hard work starts. Those cleanup workers are doing a physically punishing job in the midst of toxic fumes, dust and dangerous conditions. At the same time, some of the families of people who died in the attacks still need counseling and assistance in starting their lives over.

Barb Neal and Ron Smullin are two of a number of South Whidbey residents who are keeping the recovery going. Neal, a nurse with the Seattle-King County Disaster Medical Assistance Team, and Smullin, a disaster action team member with the American Red Cross, are or have been at Ground Zero in both cities, helping workers who are cleaning up and the families of victims.

“You get the feeling you want to help somehow,” said Neal Sunday night as she waited at her Langley home to board a plane Monday bound for New York City.

Neal and a team of 16 medical professionals will spend two weeks in a temporary hospital next to the site of the collapsed trade center. One of two of these facilities left on site (there were as many as six in September), the hospitals are there to treat cleanup workers suffering from exhaustion and injuries.

Neal said she had not thought her team would be going to New York, even though it has been on alert since September. A veteran of flood, earthquake and hurricane operations in North and Central America, she said she is happy to go, even though she will leave behind her husband, Doug, and her two young boys. She will also take a big pay cut from the wage she makes as a nurse at Whidbey General Hospital.

But, she said, none of that is a big deal if she can help.

Smullin feels the same way. He put in 21 days of volunteer time at a Washington, D.C. Red Cross telephone crisis center in September and October. Back home for the moment, he said he will do another tour with the Red Cross in November, this time at the World Trade Center site.

As a supervisor in the agency’s nationwide 1-877-GET INFO center, Smullin took calls from a number of people who lost loved ones in the terror attacks. The center averaged 300 to 500 calls a day from people all over the United States. Red Cross volunteers directed those calls to health and mental health professionals, counseling clergy, and public and private service providers who could help with everything from making life insurance claims to planning funerals.

“It didn’t just affect the East Coast,” Smullin said. “It affected everybody.”

An avid runner, Smullin ran near the devastated Pentagon building almost every day of his tour. Those runs made the tragedy even more real for him. On the phone at the call center, he heard no happy stories. By the time he started work on Sept. 16, there were no survivors to be found.

On one call, he talked to a woman whose husband had been lost in the World Trade Center. To get her the help she needed, he first had to calm the tearful woman down, then transfer her to a grief counsellor.

The Red Cross response to the disaster was new for the agency. This is the first time it has assisted in a terrorist disaster. It also promises to be an ongoing effort, Smullin said. The 877 hotline may remain in operation indefinitely.

“This was a new step for the Red Cross,” he said.

In the long run, Smullin said, he believes the people of Washington, D.C. and New York City will recover and rebuild their lives. He said people in the nation’s capital have already resumed their normal lives with a grim resolve.

“I’ve seen more people draw together ...” he said.

Smullin said he may soon be joined on one of his trips to work the disaster sites by his wife, Shirley. She is also a Red Cross volunteer and has worked nearly enough local crises to qualify for service at a national disaster.

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