Aiding victimsWHILE SCORES of well-meaning people have rushed to lower Manhattan, filled with compassion and little skill, to help in the rescue efforts in the aftermath of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, it takes a special person to actually help in times of crisis.
And 3 Hawaii residents are
among those trained to
respond to the call
Gary C.W. Chun
It's people like Masaru Oshiro, Stanley Toy and Claude Chemtob. All are trained professionals -- a Red Cross volunteer, an Army National Guard commander and a clinical psychologist, respectively -- who have been in the worst of situations and continue to use their skills when disaster strikes.
Each one feels it's within their capacity to do something concrete, to make a difference.
Oshiro has helped families deal with the loss of loved ones in air crashes. He is a disaster mental health services volunteer with the American Red Cross and former head of the organization's state chapter of mental health, and a liaison with the State Civil Defense office.
In August 1997, Oshiro went to Guam to assist families in identifying the 228 passengers of Korean Air flight 801 who were killed when the aircraft slammed into a hill.
"I was one of five disaster mental health personnel," he said, "and I was assisted by a Korean who actually lived on Guam to help translate for me.
"I tried to help family members ID their loved ones using photos of reconstructed bodies from autopsies. As I helped them go through albums of victims, for some of them, they couldn't even identify the people, the quality of photographic restoration not being the best.
"In helping them with the IDs," Oshiro said, "I wanted to at least help them confirm that they definitely did not see their loved ones in the photo albums.
"My primary job in these situations is to assist in the preventive work and aid in the families' grief. I'm always watching for cues, whether it be looking at their reactions, what they're saying and how they're saying it, and other mannerisms, trying to be as alert and sensitive as I can. I certainly wouldn't want to push them."
Oshiro also was there for the victims' families in the aftermath of the Xerox shootings and the Sacred Falls rockslide, as well as of local helicopter and small aircraft crashes, sometimes arriving on site even before the bodies were recovered.
"It's my job to stay with the families until ID is made," he said. "I also work with local law enforcement officials to help create areas of privacy so families can grieve."
May of 2000 saw the death of six people from a private-jet crash on Molokai, a flight that had originated from Maui. The bodies were flown to Maui Memorial Hospital, and as the families from the mainland started arriving, Oshiro said, "We used the police chief's conference room to keep the media away so they could grieve in private. We spent the entire day there until we met with investigators to help with the identification."
Doing mental health intervention work like this for six years now, Oshiro said that "I, as a fellow human being, can't help but react to seeing the stress, anxiety and grief these families are going through. There's an elemental human reaction to the sudden loss of a loved one. Each person is unique; some become angry and blame everybody, some are quiet and patiently wait. But you know they're in shock, in denial, and some continue to pray that their loved one didn't die."
Oshiro, as well as Maj. Stanley Toy, realize when incidents like these happen, it takes time to mobilize. During Hurricane Iniki it was fortuitous that Toy's Army National Guard group was close by.
Currently a commander of the guard's 93rd Weapons of Mass Destruction and Civil Support Team, Toy said: "I was part of the Army Guard's 2nd Battalion, drilling with the Kona unit in Kealakekua, when Iniki hit. We mobilized that very same day and went to Lihue.
"When we got there it was a mess. Helicopters were strewn about the airfield, and there was not much infrastructure left standing. I remember being near Wiliwili Harbor and seeing the boats that used to be in the harbor up on a nearby hillside, and the cattle that was there now floating in the harbor."
Structural destruction was immense, with downed telephone poles in the roads.
You can hear the pride in Toy's voice of what the National Guard and the military accomplished on Kauai.
"The public outcry and concern as well was great," he said. "Everyone wanted to help in any form or fashion. I vividly remember securing the docks and, because there was a total power system shutdown, we and the people of Kauai were waiting for barges and tugboats to bring ice to the island. We and the military were well received in helping to bring back a sense of normalcy to the place."
Toy said he relies on his military training and discipline, his dedication to duty and professionalism, to keep him going.
"There was so much we had to do -- patching up roofs, hauling rubber tires, consoling and feeding people, putting up and manning evacuation centers. Each thing on its own maybe manini in size, but collectively it helps bring a sense of normalcy.
"My own life has changed. I was once a schoolteacher who was a Guardsman on the weekends. I'm now part of the active duty of the Army National Guard, and my particular team assists law enforcement officials in the event of suspected terrorism, ID'ing unknown hazards. And I'm sure our sister unit in New York City is being utilized to its fullest, what with the concern over dust and asbestos."
It is common knowledge now to local residents that the date Sept. 11 holds significance, even before Tuesday's tragic events. Nine years ago to the day, Hurricane Iniki struck Kauai with an unforgiving force. But this was a natural disaster, while the strikes at the World Trade Center and Pentagon were terrorist acts.
"It's a feeling of real sorrow, combined with disbelief, of how could something like this happen," said Oshiro. "The initial reaction, regardless of the scope of the damage, is no different. To see devastation, it's an almost unbelievable, overwhelming feeling."
Oshiro said the Hawaii chapter of the American Red Cross is part of the Disaster Operations Center in Falls Church, Va., so it, too, can be part of a rapid mobilization effort in sending volunteers with special functions in aviation crash and mental health. One Red Cross volunteer will be leaving for New York, with more possibly following in weeks ahead.
"Volunteers must be able to commit to two to three weeks of service," Oshiro said, "and people like me who are retired, we have more of a chance to go.
"A lot of times we, too, are faced with severe mental health challenges. The standard procedure is having a minimum of two people working in the field. If one person is feeling really stressed, the other one can help and relieve him or her. We also try to remain alert to our own emotions. If we get caught up in the crisis itself, we can become victims ourselves."
When he feels stress himself, he refers to his list of 101 stress relievers that include "Call up an old friend," "Watch a really good movie," "Play with your dog," "Write down your fears" and "Do a good deed."
Oshiro also said he's very thankful to have "terrific family support and tremendous home base support" with no domestic problems to add to the burden. "My wife is also a Red Cross volunteer, in family service, and we kind of work as a team on occasion." The couple worked together two-and-a-half years ago when a tornado devastated Pascagoula, Miss.
"Disaster work is hard but you gotta do something."
It is a sentiment echoed by Dr. Claude Chemtob, who has a private practice here and serves as a consultant with the local Department of Veterans Affairs. He also is a visiting professor in psychology and pediatrics at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, located in New York's Upper East Side, and the Saul Z. Cohen Chair of the Jewish Board of Family & Children Services. It is the largest human service agency in the United States, and Chemtob is a senior consultant there.
Chemtob regularly flies between Honolulu and New York City, and had been scheduled to fly back Monday night to give a lecture at the school. He will have a much bigger job ahead of him on his return.
"A plan was being reviewed (last) week where the UH School of Nursing and Mt. Sinai would jointly develop a center for child trauma, funded by the Substance and Mental Health Services Agency of the Department of Health and Human Services. The primary location would be in New York City, with faculty being established in Hawaii as well.
"We've learned a lot about trauma since Iniki," he said.
Chemtob, with House member Bertha Kawakami, was able to help start what has proved to be a successful program to screen Kauai children for post-traumatic stress disorder after Hurricane Iniki.
"Those same techniques, with variances, will be used in New York City," he said. "Kauai, as a byproduct, obtained the first data for this program."
His results are recognized both nationally and internationally, and Chemtob said techniques developed on Kauai are now used widely in France and Croatia and in individual cases in the United States.
Chemtob was also consultant to the French government in helping to develop a response to terrorism, so he knows what the people of New York are going through. "I consider New York as a second home, and I go humbly to help, I would think principally with children, but also maybe work with firefighters and families.
"The people of Kauai had an extraordinary ability to deal with devastation in the wake of the hurricane. The similarity with what happened in New York was that everybody in the area was affected. The big difference is that the city is expected to experience a huge loss of life. For the people of Kauai, they were very blessed with little loss of life after Iniki.
"With each person's death, while each is important unto themselves, it also impacts all those who loved or were dependent on that person. Even with 2-1/2 million people on Manhattan island, the dynamics of living on an island still prevail. New Yorkers really are much more caring, in spite of the stereotype, and all were affected due to the intense and close physicality they share."
And this time, the ferocity and scope of the attack extended to the entire American "family," with most citizens feeling similar emotions.
"People will go from shock, grieving, feeling vulnerable, to such an intense level of anger as to be frightening," Chemtob said. "After all, one of this country's mottos is 'Don't tread on me.' But you'll see us reach an extraordinary level to pull together after this attack, more acts of heroism. We have a capability of coming together, with no difference made between natural disaster and war. We feel that what happens to a member of our community happens to us as well. Both events bring out our survival mode, the country's special ways to deal with problems and threats. We rally together to feel safer and stronger.
"With terrorists, they try hard to damage people, and in this case they succeeded. But in dealing with these deaths, the country mobilizes quickly. Part of what happens, as a victim of terrorism, you see how people care about you. It's impulsive.
"Historically, we always rise to the challenge. After the Pearl Harbor devastation, we ended up winning the war. The collective culture of the United States is the strength of the people, our ability to pull together, put aside our differences and prevail. The country survives emotional trauma well.
"I consider myself fortunate. I have a small practice here, and I maintain it OK," Chemtob said. "But I'll do what I need to do in New York and will spend money out of my own pocket if need be. This is a national emergency and a national tragedy.
"I'm not sure where I can go immediately when I get there, and I feel more vulnerable about that, but I'm going to lend my expertise wherever I can. My colleagues there want my help, and I want to help."
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