ABOARD THE USNS COMFORT – Before heading for a shower, a World Trade Center rescue worker from a Massachusetts canine team provided a harsh taste of reality at the collapse site: “My clothes smell like dead bodies,” he remarked to no one in particular. “I don’t even want to open my bag.”
More and more rescuers, many of whom have been at the trade center since the Sept. 11 terrorist-linked jetliner attacks destroyed the twin towers, are seeking solace — both physical and mental — from the Navy’s huge Baltimore- based hospital ship since it docked in midtown Manhattan Friday.
Signs appeared around the ship’s reception area Sunday evening offering a Rescue Worker Debriefing Group: “The USNS Comfort extends the opportunity to everyone to share his or her experience related to our national tragedy.”
Two psychiatrists, one psychologist, one psychiatric nurse and two chaplains compose a team prepared to offer emotional support to anyone in need.
“A lot of people may feel overwhelmed, not eating, not sleeping . . . nightmares,” said Lt. James Reeves, a psychiatrist based at National Naval Medical Center-Bethesda.
“The more they share their experiences with others who have similar experiences, the more they know they’re not alone,” Reeves said. “The less people talk . . . the more isolated they can feel.”
That isolation often leads to depression, he said.
At the moment, most people seem to be doing well, Reeves said. They are working in very cohesive units that help each other deal with the stress. And on the Comfort over the weekend, there were many others to share experiences with.
The beds of the 10-story ship filled with police officers, firemen and military reservists. Even the Massachusetts man’s exhausted “cadaver dog,” a specially trained canine aiding in the search, found its way into officers’ quarters for a nap.
On Sunday, 270 workers slept on the ship and 227 just came for a hot meal in a galley that now runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, said Marge Holtz, director of public affairs for Military Sealift Command, the Navy department that runs the ship.
Among the weary coming in over the weekend were firemen from Chicago, a SWAT team from Milton, Conn., Air National Guardsmen from Syracuse, N.Y., and many New York City emergency workers.
A disaster team from Mexico City came aboard for food and other supplies after their luggage failed to arrive with their plane. They heard about the Comfort on television in the airport.
“We came voluntarily to support the fire departments,” said Hector Mendez, a 55-year-old senator in Mexico’s national Legislature.
“Many people (in Mexico) said: `Don’t go to the United States. You can’t do anything there. They already have the best people.’ But we are experienced and we want to help,” Mendez said.
The rescue team has worked in more than a dozen disaster areas — in India and El Salvador this year alone — said Edmundo Delgado Ramirez, a 51-year-old national legislator. They were anxious to get started.
After spending the day Saturday trying unsuccessfully to help at the recovery site, the Mexico City team was back Sunday morning.
Officials told them that even though they had credentials, in order to secure the area they were not allowing any more volunteers to join the recovery effort at what is being called “ground zero,” said Gerardo Suchil Reyes, a member of the group.
“We came. We tried. Now we will go,” he said. “It’s a complicated political situation.”
Mendez was still very positive. He spoke of the camaraderie that exists at disaster scenes while he taught a few words of a native Aztec language to a sailor.
The cab driver who brought them from the airport late Saturday night refused to take money for the $45 fare because they had come so far to help, Mendez said. The stories of blessings and burdens rang from every bulkhead in the Comfort as the ship filled.
Two New York City firemen who stayed on the ship said their station lost every firefighter on duty last Tuesday.
One rescuer told a crewmember that he came to the Comfort because he wanted to be some place with armed guards. The Comfort even has that basic need covered. A specialized platoon of U.S. Marines provides security for the ship.