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At Ground Zero she tended to first responders

STORY BY MICHELLE GENZ, (Week of September 8, 2011)
Photo: 9/11 debriefer Rebecca Russell-Gootee

Rebecca Russell-Gootee, at age 16 one of 30 girls  who won a “Seventeen” magazine contest to spend a summer in New York, was the only one who wanted to spend her free time at a homeless shelter.

“I was the most comfortable in a soup kitchen,” says Russell-Gootee, the new executive director of Indian River County’s Healthy Start Coalition.

Twenty-one years later, with similar equanimity, when other single moms were huddling close to their families in the hours after 9/11, she went back to New York, volunteering for 10 days in a tent at Ground Zero, tending to traumatized first responders through the National Organization of Victim Assistance.

NOVA, as it is called, miraculously mustered 600 of its certified volunteers within hours of the attack, and with jets grounded nevertheless got them to New York from all over the country.

“NOVA was a godsend,” wrote Timothy Norris, a Port Authority police officer and the commanding officer of the western zone of the World Trade Center site.  “Eventually I saw some of my most hardened cops – some cops who saw some incredible things that day – open up to the NOVA counselors. It was incredibly effective.”

Russell-Gootee drove directly from her home in Indiana, arriving on Sept. 13. She checked in, got her armband and suited up against the toxic airborne broth of debris that still swirled around the site.

 With both counselors and their clients – mostly first-responders –  in jumpsuits, gas masks, and oxygen tanks, she could read neither faces nor body language,  lending an even more surreal quality to her task. “It reminded me of a foggy night on the farm,” she said, remembering her childhood in Indiana.

For her charges, the adrenaline that afforded them superhuman endurance was in some cases pushing them beyond their own margin of safety.   “I’d hear, ‘I found this finger -- that means there’s somebody there! I’ve got to find the rest of them,’ “ she recalls.  ”They could be trembling, or be the way you act when everything’s going slow motion after a car wreck, when you’re really dazed and it isn’t making sense.”

At those moments, she would lead the exhausted rescue worker away for a break. “I’d say, ‘Hey, Joe, tell me about your kids in Iowa.’ Or ‘Come on, let’s go get water. This isn’t going away. This is going to be here when you come back.’ “

Today, Russell-Gootee helps Vero clients at Healthy Start adjust to the start of a life, not the end: the agencies she oversees help parents overwhelmed with a new baby in their lives, and offer guidance through the pre-school years.

Russell-Gootee, 47, relocated to Vero just over a month ago, arriving at the home of a friend on the barrier island to begin familiarizing herself with her new town.  She had worked for seven years in the Tampa Bay area as director of a chapter of Habitat for Humanity and at the St. Petersburg Free Clinic.

At Healthy Start, she has been dealing with high-risk teen moms-to-be, victims of domestic abuse, and parents whose children have been removed by the state. And she handles the happier aspects: Lamaze classes, breast-feeding help, encouraging parents to read to their kids.

With degrees in social work and family therapy, Russell-Gootee’s career has spanned Mexico to Jamaica to Puerto Rico. As a NOVA volunteer, she served as a counselor to teachers traumatized by the deadly attack at Columbine High School in Colorado.

She was running a 45-bed shelter for the YWCA in Evanston, when she got the call from NOVA on Sept. 11, 2001. She arrived in New York two days later. As 600 NOVA volunteers set up across the river in New Jersey, walking each victim or family through the quagmire of aide, Russell-Gootee’s team of 30 set up a tent at the soul of the chaos, right next to the Red Cross. Dead Ground Zero, as she called it.

Vero Beach 32963: How did you see your role at Ground Zero?
Russell-Gootee: I just wanted to be that real person, when everything was so surreal. If there was a grown man sobbing, it was my job to just sit there and let him do it.  If you were exhausted, I’m going to give you a glass of wine or a cup of coffee. Others needed to be pulled away from the scene. The adrenaline just wouldn’t let them stop.

It was horrifying, rewarding, exciting, compassionate, and dangerous.  But I don’t think any of us even thought about what we felt. We just did what we were trained to do. You just responded, and your natural instinct to nurture just came out.

VB32963: And what did you take away from that scene?
The biggest sense of unity I have ever experienced in my life. It’s like the trauma bond that victims of domestic violence experience in a family, or people who’ve been victims of the same bank robbery. The little piece that I did has held it in my heart forever, even though I don’t know who they were, and they don’t know who I was.

VB32963: When you became certified to help crime victims, did you imagine it could apply on this scale?
R-G: My training was in the social effects of trauma in what I would call standard victimization. This was the ultimate victimization of many, many people, in a situation that was mass chaos.

VB32963: These were tough guys, these first responders. What sort of things did they tell you?
R-G: People were asking, ‘Why am I here? Why did I do this to myself? I’m never going to be able to forget this.’ Everyone there was volunteering to put themselves in that situation. Nobody had to be there.

VB32963: And neither did you. What about your own exhaustion? You were there for six days without a shower.
R-G: And I’m used to brushing my teeth three times a day. I don’t think I ever even thought about it. There was no electricity. It was hot, and it was rainy. For the situation, the rain was horrible. It was damaging the crime scene and damaging the remains. I remember feeling guilty for being cooled off.

VB32963: Where did you sleep?
R-G: There were cots in the tent. I slept there for 10 days. There was a Sheraton that allowed us to shower and rest, and I did go after six days. We would take breaks at night, but your brain doesn’t stop at night. 

One thing that I will never forget for as long as I live: the sounds. There were things burning or still falling or popping. It was the eeriest experience, the feeling of death. That was probably the first time that I really experienced death. It wasn’t just somebody’s passing. I remember sitting with my mother, passing of Alzheimer’s. When you’re watching someone’s death, there’s a taking of life, and then it’s over.  There was no taking at Ground Zero. It was just constant. It was like you’re stuck in a dream, and there’s death, there’s death, there’s death.

There were people there from all these different cultures that expressed emotions differently and in different languages. But you couldn’t see faces. We all had gas masks. I don’t know you, I don’t know if you’re a terrorist. I can’t even see your face. For me as a therapist, I’m used to being able to connect by looking at someone’s eyes. It scared me to death when we first got there, because I realized I was in the middle of a terrorist zone.

Suddenly I realized: you’re in a very vulnerable situation. I remember thinking, What in the hell am I here for? Why did I do this? And I would tell myself, This is why: because I can help this professional go back and do his job. I wouldn’t know what a finger looked like in a pile of burning ash. But these were people who could.

VB32963: How did you yourself hold up?
R-G: I was fine. I’ve dealt with other things before. My daughter was a tiny baby when the California earthquake hit in 1983. Twenty years ago, in El Salvador, there were mudslides when I was living on the top of a mountain with my mother and my children.

In Evansville, I counseled law enforcement on gathering evidence when a woman who had stayed in my (domestic abuse) shelter was murdered and her body was sawed in pieces and spread over six counties. Another client was burned over 86 percent of her body by her abuser, and I was called to sit with her in the hospital before she was bandaged. There were language barriers – she was Islamic. I just stayed with her.

At Ground Zero, I was required to take breaks. But I was cool and fine. I think I work my best in crisis.  I’m the one at the funeral, where everybody else is crying, and I’m getting people organized. Then I always fall apart afterwards.

VB32963: And what was it like when this was over for you?
R-G:  When I was sitting in my beautiful house with my beautiful children, and my loving mother, that’s when it hit me: Why did I do this, putting myself in danger?
For weeks, I saw the faces of people crying that will always be in my mind and how we were so together.

VB32963: You went home for 2½  weeks. Then you went back to Ground Zero for four days. How did your kids respond to that?
R-G: My son was OK. He was 11. My daughter was not so OK. She was 16. She was saying, ‘The dust has cleared. They can find you now. The horrible people who did this are coming back.’ As I was leaving the second time, she stormed off to school. ‘I might not ever talk to you again. I may never see you again.’ I said, ‘Hold up. It’s going to be different this time.’ The second time, I had cell phone service. I could call them.

VB32963: Have you been back to Ground Zero since then?
R-G: It was 3½  years before I could go to Ground Zero.  When I did go back, to me, it was just a big hole in the ground. People can accept a big hole in the ground.

VB32963: Did you lose anyone you knew on 9/11?
R-G: Yes. Stacy Peak. She had always been my rival in high school, we fought over the same boyfriends. She called her mother on her cell phone as she was dying.
I’ve been to vigils when someone’s been slain, and the people who come are the ones who are directly affected. But this was everybody. You know how small towns have parades, and everybody comes together? Well, on the lawn of the courthouse in a rural town, everybody came together.

VB32963: Has the death of Osama Bin Laden provided any solace for you?  
R-G: I personally can’t say that I’m OK with how he died. Do I think that murdering somebody because of what they did is the right answer? I don’t know – do you bite your child because they bite the kids at school?

Am I glad he’s not a threat anymore? Yes, I am. Can I say that if I was that Navy Seal, that I would not have pulled the trigger? I don’t know. I may have, and I may just be being righteous about it.