We are pleased to present the second in our ongoing series of conversations among alumni about current issues, culture, and faith in their post-Regis involvement with the world. This discussion was held at Regis on 29 November and focused on New York City five years after the events of 9/11. Taking part in the evening were:
Vincent P. Maher, Esq. ’73, Professor of Health Law Policy and Ethics, Iona College
Michael D. O’Keeffe ’73, Deputy Chief, New York City Fire Department
Mr. Christian M. Talbot, Chair, Regis High School English Department
James P. Wolak, M.D. ’88, Psychiatrist, New York Presbyterian Hospital
I wasn’t even supposed to be there that day.
Switched days so I could do something later that week.
So many freaky stories like mine.
Many died. Yet more survived. For now.
I still see it…So clearly.
Frame by frame by frame.
I can feel it.
I cough. I choke. Still.
Breathing is very difficult sometimes.
Sudden loud noises freak me out.
At least it’s easier than in the beginning.
I think. They don’t though.
and I’m tired.
It’s not exhaustion. It’s worse. Exhaustion only needs sleep.
Sleep doesn’t help much…..Nightmares.
The faces of flight; faces of rescue; faces of awful wonder and terror. Up close.
Bodies flying out of windows – there is no Superman.
This is not a movie.
Bodies fall like bricks – screaming. No chance for a second take.
An audiovideo of those who survived as we die…?
No one really wants to know. ‘cause it takes too long. No drama.
Besides…it’s five years out and
Everything’s supposed to be better.
DR. TOCCHET: A warm welcome back to the alumni here around the table. I'm the new guy here at Regis, the new principal. And I am to loosely act as the moderator for this august assemblage in our conversation this evening. Now particularly, I feel honored to be here. It's not every day a Fordham Prep grad can sit at the same table with a number of Regians and be allowed to speak. So, I thank you for your spirit of generosity. Truly Jesuit inspired.
I'd like to cover what we really want to talk about tonight, not so much about where we were on that day; but rather, what we know or we don't know, what we think, what we feel today, five years later. And that's really the focus – New York City, five years after 9/11. That's sort of our objective. That’s sort of the vision of where we want to go with our conversation. And we’re going to consider political, social, practical human dimensions here of New York City five years after. And with that, I think it might be appropriate to have some introductions around the table so we can begin our conversation.
Very quickly, I’m here in a round-about manner. I am finishing 29 years of active duty service in the U.S. Army. I had opportunities in those 29 years to spend about half of them in academic settings, and half with an operational force. I've been on a number of planning committees. I was a plans officer for the divisional unit out in the Pacific, 25th Infantry Division; and an adjunct crisis action planner with Pacific Command, in which I did a number of special plans supporting special ops, extraction, evacuation, back up security for some counter terrorist operations, and some missions in the Pacific. Although I'm not a special operations officer, again from the planning perspective, I've had a little bit of experience in that area. I’m an academic though, here in later life. You know a little about my passion. I taught the history of U.S. Foreign Relations at the Academy, and particularly cold war diplomacy. I arrived in this land of Regians this July, so I'm very excited to be here and to be part of these conversations.
MR. TALBOT: Thanks, Gary. I’m Christian Talbot, Regis class of '93, Georgetown '97, and recently finished my graduate degree at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytical Studies, where I focused on, the psycho-dynamics of terrorism.
DR. WOLAK: Hi everyone. My name is Jim Wolak. I grew up in New Jersey, which provided my Regis classmates with a ready way to make fun of me when the need arose. I went to Amherst College and then I worked for five years for the City of Newark, New Jersey, EMS service before going to med school at Columbia. And I'm now a psychiatrist at New York Presbyterian Hospital Cornell. As an academic psychiatry department, we serve largely a clinic population. Unfortunately, we still see many people who are still suffering from the events of 9/11. I've also had the opportunity to see some of the research and some of the examination of the events and the response to 9/11 that has come out of academic psychiatry in ways that we can better approach people if, God forbid, such a situation should happen again.
MR. O'KEEFFE: I'm Mike O'Keefe, '73, and I went to NYU for a little while and I got bored with that and ended up becoming a paramedic, worked at Beekman Hospital and Saint Claire’s Hospital in Manhattan, and got on the fire department in 1981. And I'm still in it. I'm still enjoying it most days. I'm Deputy Chief in lower Manhattan and I work in mid-town. On 9/11 I was working in Queens, so I was not in the center of things when that happened. I'm just glad to be back. It's a little different, but I'm loving it.
MR. TORRE: Mark Torre. I've been called a lot of things in my life Doctor, but “august” never! Anyway, I have an engineering background, but I got sort of bored with that and decided I wanted to become a police officer, which I did in 1986. So 21 years of police experience. I've been in what I'll describe to you as a bomb world since 1993. I left the Bomb Squad for a short time – I was a sergeant there – but not too far, because when I had made promotion to lieutenant, I went into what we call the Arson Explosion Squad. That's where I was during the whole 9/11 event. The Arson Explosion Squad does what I affectionately call the hard work in the bomb field because we do the Hollywood jobs, taking stuff apart, and the initial investigation. But A&E, as we call it, also does the follow up investigation and they actually put handcuffs on the bad guys. Just when I thought I was out, they called me back to the bomb squad and that's where I am now. And that's where I remain and hopefully will for the foreseeable future.
MR. LYNCH: Hi, my name is Kenny Lynch and I'm class of '63. I graduated from here and went to Fordham University on a basketball scholarship, believe it or not. I used to be able to hang on a rim; now I can't touch the net. And then I went on to St. John's Law School, and graduated from there in '71, and got admitted into practice. I clerked for the Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of International Trade for about a year and a half, in which time I spent 18 months in the library doing legal research and writing, which I hated. It drove me into the FBI. I went and joined the FBI thinking I would spend a few years in there and get some life experience and pop back out into the legal arena; I popped back out 32 years later. While on the FBI, I did typical organized crime, white collar crime, public crimes, etc. I spent five years as a counter intelligence officer in the Soviet Division, KGB/GRU.
DR. TOCCHET: How can I get your memoir?
MR. LYNCH: And then I spent 15 years assigned to what they euphemistically call “operations support” to the intelligence community. I worked with other government agencies who are restricted from working domestically. And in that area we targeted the Middle East and counter terrorism. Basically, it was a special operations branch, and I worked the whole time here in New York, except initially for a year in Boston. And after 30 years, they threw me out. 57 is our mandatory retirement. I got rehired for three years as an intel analyst in the Joint Terrorist Task Force. I left there two years ago and now I'm a contract employee with Homeland Security.
MR. MAHER: My name is Vincent Maher, class of '73. Mike and I were classmates.
My past life since getting out of Regis is as eclectic as some of the other people here. I did a stint with Jesuits after I got out of here, and then became a nurse, and a nurse anesthetist specializing in shock trauma and emergency care. Went to law school, practiced law for 20 years, picked up some credentials in economic international political economy and development and then others in comparative ethics. I've been teaching for 17 years at Iona College where my academic niche is health law policy and ethics.
DR. TOCCHET: Well, let's start. Vin gave us, if you all recall in the packet that we have here, some reflective pieces to think about prior to this particular meeting. Vin gave us his own poetic sense, in a way, of what five years out meant. And so, maybe this is the toughest question of the evening, if we start individually with some personal reflections as we all think back from this place to five years ago, what is it that now stands in our minds? What do we feel? Perhaps something that is etched on our own thoughts about that event? And perhaps how it affects us today?
And so as a very generalized question, but as we think to 9/11 five years ago, what does that mean to each one of you?
MR. O'KEEFFE: Well, a beautiful day is never the same anymore. That was one of the ten best days of the year, weather wise. It was a --
DR. TOCCHET: It was a beautiful clear blue sky that day.
MR. O'KEEFFE: When those days come around, even now, that time of year.
DR. WOLAK: There were a couple this September.
MR. O'KEEFFE: Yes. You're back there. That's just one of those things that kind of puts you back.
DR. TOCCHET: The thought that even on a beautiful day like that --
MR. O'KEEFFE: Something that was just good is now like a mixed bag because of that.
MR. TALBOT: I was struck in reading Vinny's poem along side the other editorials, at how raw the wound still is for most people, I think, who were here. Maybe even people who weren't necessarily present in New York City. It comes through in the poem the idea that these images are buried deep within people's psyches, and we do an awful lot to try to sort of keep it buried.
I was particularly impressed by how acute the editorials in the New York Times, were in putting their fingers on things like the first anniversary. It says: “We’ve learned to calibrate our anxiety,” which is, I’m sure, a kind of a loaded phrase in terms of the security levels of the codes –
MR. O'KEEFFE: Yellow and orange, yes – a
DR. TOCCHET: -- but somehow we now have a measuring rod to that.
MR. TALBOT: But as much as we sort of codify our anxiety, what struck me particularly in Vinny's poem is that it's something that I think a lot of people, and myself included, try not to think about too much. I mean, we don't really like to watch the worst images from that day. There are some things we will look at like the plume of smoke coming out of the buildings. But I, for one, hate to see the image of the planes going into the buildings. I can't watch that. So I was particularly struck by that.
MR. MAHER: I was telling Mike before, poetry is something that I've only come to within the past four months. I never knew I could write poetry. In September when I wrote this, I had only been writing for about a month [This poem prefaces the transcript]. And what happened was that, in a teaching environment, a number of my students had been downtown when it happened and we've talked about this through the years. And what was fascinating, and this happened with me and with other people as we would start to talk, is about suppressing and calibrating memories and stuff. The editorials talk about this as well. Maybe Jim would have experience with this, there are a lot of people who are only able to start having nightmares now. It's been so suppressed in the memory of a lot of people that even nightmares weren't possible. And only now the nightmares are starting to happen. The nightmares only started for me this year, in August and September. I was fine until this year. And other people that I know who were there reported similar kinds of things. That just when you thought it was okay, you found out that it really wasn't. And I think that what triggered it, Christian, was PBS or one of those stations doing this five-year anniversary thing. And they had done all these simulations, and they were trying to get people to watch this show about the towers coming down. And they had simulated planes, computer generated simulated planes, coming through the windows. They said now we have sound tracks, and stuff like that. And I think that started it all over again for a lot of us.
Even if you wanted to get away from it, no one would let you get away from it. So you just couldn't forget where you were. So just when you think it's okay, it's not.
So it's alive. And I think we are seeing more and more people now in the healthcare field. The registries, the Mount Sinai registries and stuff like that, are merely tracking symptoms. They are not curing anybody, they are not treating anybody. They are merely recording what it is that you've got that you are complaining about and when did that happen, and how bad it is? That's all they really want to know. There's nothing that they can do for you.
And it's only now that I know people, for example, who are suddenly starting to talk about having nightmares. Only now are people starting to have respiratory problems that weren't rescue people or recovery people; people who worked in the area. The political fallout, for example, that no one wants to deal with is the issue of the people who lived there, worked there, day in and day out, who have been exposed to all that toxic material. And what has that done to their bodies? No one wants to deal with that. Because suddenly the 3,000 figure of people who died that day balloons to numbers that no one can even imagine. And it's just too scary to think about.
DR. TOCCHET: It goes to the very question, really, the health of the City – a significant amount of the population’s, mental health as well as physical repercussions.
Is this something though, that we might expect? Are there other examples of trauma or shock? This is very selective, but I remember my father, a World War II veteran, who never really spoke much about his experiences, and was rather close lipped about them. And he went to see “Saving Private Ryan.” He turned ashen white, sweating, and had to walk out of the film. And he told me, “Now I remember my friends. I remember what happened.” Could it have been possible that this was not on his mind for 20, 30 years? You wonder, what does in fact dislodge or spark those types of memories from those traumatic events and incidents. Perhaps we might be seeing more and more of this, more people coming forward with some of these repercussions. Ken, you had some comment?
MR. LYNCH: Yes. First, I've been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder from another event, another time, years ago. I was told that PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) rears it's ugly head five to seven years after the event, typically. Maybe the doctor can comment on this. Is that what you're seeing now? Is that what's happening?
DR. WOLAK: The one thing that 9/11 has done is to force the psychiatric community to take a long hard look at some of the ways that it diagnoses people and treats them. I think this event was so unprecedented that the kind of sentiment that Vin was expressing, that there really is nothing to do, is captured in this. It made me think of the final two stanzas of his poem:
An audiovideo of those who survived as we die…?
We’re not on prime time
No one really wants to know ‘cause it takes too long. No drama.
Besides…it’s five years out and
Everything’s supposed to be better.
To me that's expressing this feeling, not of hopelessness, but of frustration at some void or unmet need. One thing that this event has taught us is how little we know.
Now, the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has an interesting history. It really did not enter the psychiatric parlance until the mid 70's. And it's a diagnosis that entered in mainstream psychiatry, but that has remained controversial throughout its life span – unlike some other diagnoses that are tried and true and well described for hundreds of years. The kinds of things that may be labeled as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder now, might have been described as shell-shock or something else in a previous era. It may not have even been a diagnosis, but a value judgment. In World War I, many soldiers who were suffering from battle fatigue as it was called, were disgraced and sent off of the front lines to asylums where they just kind of wallowed.
DR. TOCCHET: They were told they were malingering.
DR. WOLAK: Yes.
DR. TOCCHET: It was believed that they just didn't want to fight.
DR. WOLAK: Right. Of weak moral character. We've come a long way since then. But the diagnosis, as it stands now, incorporates three major realms: one is persistent re-experiencing of the event; one is an avoidance of stimuli that evoke the event; and one is a sense of heightened arousal. And the time course can either be acute, those symptoms have to last for one month to make the diagnosis, or chronic, if it lasts more than three months. Or it can have delayed onset. I think that's what you both have referred to. That's the kind of version that we've been seeing more and more of. And it's something that we couldn't have anticipated because of the unprecedented nature of this event.
DR. TOCCHET: Let me ask two “first responders”, so to speak, have there been any programs or changes of counseling or mental health assistance in your particular departments, for those who may have been intimately involved, or lost friends? Any thing going on, formally, within your organizations?
MR. O'KEEFFE: We had one counseling unit that basically was a drug and alcohol treatment program. There were some family stress issues they were dealt with as well. One location. And they might have helped 100 or 200 people in the course of a year. Now, after 9/11, there are about seven locations and they are seeing a lot. They are seeing more drug and alcohol, but they are seeing a lot of people, clients for stress related issues related to 9/11. They are seeing a lot of families and retired people.
A lot of our people retired, the ones who either got injured, or who just retired because they could. Sometimes that was because their families pushed them to do that, and sometimes they just had enough of it. But a lot of people that left lost an anchor that they had when they were on the job. So I think a lot of people that retired are kind of lost. They are tracked to some degree. We have some programs that they can voluntarily come back to. But only a fraction of them come back, of course. So there's some unknown number of people that are kind of out there. They just don't have the support system that they had in the job.
I'm not really too well versed in PTSD, but I think that the people in our unit didn't see it in tremendous numbers. But the people that have it, I think, are pretty sick. It's a pretty resilient work force for the most part, but there is a group that was pretty sick.
I think there are people – some senior people that survived as first responders the day of the event – who held it altogether and kept their firehouses going, and they were the backbone. And as the years went by something would remind them. Even a smell, or a similar fire. We had a big grass fire in Brooklyn at Greenpoint a few months ago. And somebody I know who was holding it together, just the smells reminded him of that day. And that's kind of when it hit him.
DR. TOCCHET: Mark, is there a similar type of program within the police force?
MR. TORRE: There have been, and continue to be, a number of entities, counseling type entities, within the police department. We have something called a police self-support group. It's actually founded by, and still presided over, by a former member of the bomb squad. If anybody can remember back to New Years Eve, 1982 into '83, we had a series of bombings in Lower Manhattan. An individual by the name of Tony Kemp, and there was another one, Richey Pascarella, two bomb squad members were nearly killed. Tony's son now works for me. Tony is on my roll call, he's assigned to the bomb squad, but he does no enforcement work of any kind. He just runs the self-support group. That's a big one.
We have another one called APA, and we have an early intervention unit. APA is peers helping peers. It's not quite as formal as early intervention, which is really department run. And, of course, there are psychological services in the medical division. I would say that nothing new really was formed. But their numbers sure have gone up. So as Mike discussed, the programs were there, but they got a lot more customers.
DR. WOLAK: That's been one lesson we’ve learned about the delivery of services. In the aftermath there have been numerous agencies or organizations formed. The Mount Sinai group that Vin referred to, even that has a couple of different bodies. FDNY has their own unit, and NYPD. Project Liberty was another; a group that was formed specifically to address the needs of people after this.
One thing is that there was very little inter-agency communication, and not much working together. A lot of redundancy, and not much efficiency. One hope is that in the future – and it is prudent to plan for the future even from a mental health point of view – we feel secure about being able to handle such an event to help promote resiliency. But doing so will involve greater cooperation between all these different groups.
DR. TOCCHET: In the news recently, in the City news anyway, there is discussion about closing a number of hospitals and downsizing some others. Do you see any type of improvement in this area? Or expansion of resources in this area? Has there been any move towards something like agency cooperation?
DR. WOLAK: Yes.
DR. TOCCHET: Obviously, you see the call for it. Have you seen progress in that area?
DR. WOLAK: Yes, and the downsizing doesn't necessarily mean a downsizing of services. I think it implies getting leaner and meaner. And there is an urge after any kind of untoward event to want to fix it and a lot of times that implies throwing money at it. But that doesn't mean that you are going to be doing anything of any benefit. It really is a question not only of resources, but of efficient direction of those resources, and that really is the goal now. In that example of cutting back on some of the hospitals in the state, the hope is that by doing so, greater effort can be directed toward channels where they can actually have some real impact and to free up some resources that might otherwise be wasted.