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Support team helps sofa store survivors

PTSD, anxiety plague firefighters

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"I love you." "In Jesus name, amen."

These were two of the last phrases heard over the radio from fallen firefighters on June 18, 2007. Then, the roof of the furniture store collapsed and nine men were lost in the smoke and heat.

Since then, a lot of attention has been given to those last moments and what went wrong — be it construction problems or department failings.

But another story began the moment that roof fell. Lawsuits filed last month by four former Charleston firefighters — four men who say they survived the tragedy, but with physical and mental scars — have brought attention to the guilt and anxiety that haunts survivors.

In Gary Taylor's case, the firefighter claims he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, noting experiences of misery, nervousness, panic, and flashbacks. Eric Croft claims he has uncontrollable shaking in his hands. Each man notes the "search and retrieval of the horribly charred dead bodies of his comrades" contributed to severe and debilitating mental stress and anxiety.

These cases have just started working through the courts, but the fire department began addressing the counseling needs of survivors on the night of the tragedy. Nearly two years later, what started out as crisis counseling has evolved into a rare long-term mental health program to aid the men and women haunted by their good fortune in the face of tragedy.

I Went Over the Edge

Everyone responds to traumatic events differently, but victims of PTSD struggle with safety, control, intimacy, trust, and self-esteem, says Jim McGarrity an author and peer counselor.

McGarrity, a Vietnam veteran, shares his own struggle with PTSD in his book, Checkpoint One-Four.

His unit reached a bridge north of Hue in Oct. 1967. It had been the site of attempted sabotage in the past, but McGarrity ignored the thought in his head to warn a new convoy commander.

"Let him figure it out," he said to himself. "I ain't gonna help him be a hero."

That was the last thought he had before an explosion decimated the convoy. McGarrity isn't sure if he was thrown from the Jeep or if he jumped out. For a moment, he panicked, waiting for the next hit. When it didn't come, he ran to help others.

An image a few moments later has haunted the veteran for more than four decades — McGarrity cradling the burnt corpse of a fellow Marine named Pappy, his arms forever stretched toward the sky.

"When I looked at his face, that's when I think I went over the edge," he says.

For years, the vision came every day, but McGarrity didn't realize he was sick.

"I just assumed this was something I had to live with — it came with the territory," he says. "It's something I saw my uncles and other relatives live with."

And by 10 in the morning, the vision would go away.

"What I didn't realize was how that vision set the tone for how I was going to respond to the world and life around me for the rest of the day," he says.

McGarrity would have problems working with coworkers and managers and an intense vigilance for safety as he saw death in the most routine situations — keeping air pressure in a tire was a necessity, because without it, the tire would blow, and the car would careen off the road to tragic consequences.

"The end result was going to be death and destruction," McGarrity says. "A flat tire is the same as somebody getting their leg cut off."

It was a particularly violent rant at the kitchen table in 2004 that led him to seek help. Talking to his daughter about the Swift Boat ads criticizing John Kerry's service in Vietnam got him so worked up, his daughter suggested that he ask someone at the Veterans Administration about his anxiety.

He wrote it all down on a piece of paper — all the flashbacks, as well as nightmares that had only begun to invade his sleep nearly 40 years after he returned home — and gave it to a doctor. Two weeks later he was diagnosed with PTSD.

Part of the Job

Like McGarrity and other military veterans, firefighters and first responders have traditionally assumed that stress and anxiety come with the paycheck.

"Firefighters aren't very receptive to getting people inside their heads," says Gerald Mishoe, coordinator for the Charleston Firefighter Support Team. "When I came up through the ranks, if you went out there and saw death and destruction on a regular basis, it was just part of the job. You were supposed to suck it up and get on with work."

On the night of June 18, 2007, counselors were in the command post with the chief to help firefighters. The next morning, a full response team came to Charleston.

"Initially, we were trying to deal with acute problems that the loss of the nine guys had brought on this fire department," Mishoe says. "As we continued to work over the months, we realized that there was a lot of work to do based on what happened that night."

That need has evolved into a permanent program within the department to address mental health issues. The team includes three counselors contracted through the state and two veteran firefighters, Mishoe and Richard Denninger.

There are only two cities with support teams similar to the one in Charleston. New York City has had a similar program for decades that was put to the test on 9-11. And New Orleans established a support group after Hurricane Katrina.

While other departments across the country have access to crisis counselors, that aid is typically only available immediately after a traumatic incident. And the sheer nature of cases like PTSD is to push away these memories and delay seeking help.

Successful referrals have helped to break down those barriers. There's also a team of 14 active duty firefighters who serve as peer counselors in the field, looking out for team members who are struggling with stress or anxiety.

Counselors have seen 180 clients since the support team started, but the program's reach has gone beyond the sofa store. The support team has also created a group for retired personnel — their last event in December brought out 90 former firefighters. They're also coordinating with a group of firefighter wives that formed after the sofa store fire.

Raising awareness for new firefighters is also a priority, and the team provides a behavioral health workshop as part of the department's new training program.

Confidentiality has been the cornerstone of the support team's work. Counselors went so far as to stagger appointments in the first months so clients wouldn't see each other. But positive word of mouth has led to a growing acceptance among firefighters.

"It's not uncommon to see four or five people here at the same time, standing out talking in the parking lot," Mishoe says. "The firefighters have recognized that we're here for them."

Never Going To Stop

The primary role of the support team has shifted over the past two years. Early on, the priority was dealing with the loss of the firefighters. But, as the attention shifted from tragedy and grief to inquiries and accountability, firefighters were struggling with more than loss. Independent reviews cited safety concerns over old equipment, lax training, and limited staffing.

"They were confronted with everything they ever worked for in their career called into question," Mishoe says. "It put a lot of doubt into people about what they'd fought for their whole lives."

Now, the department has entered a third phase, where firefighters are confronted with new training, equipment, and procedures, sometimes changing at a moment's notice.

"There's a lot more education and training," says counselor Sarah Brasswell. "Most of my clients would say this is an improvement, overall, but there's a major adjustment that goes along with that."

Counselors continue to get people coming in for the first time over stress and anxiety directly related to the sofa store fire, but they're also fielding concerns about other things — relationship issues related to shift work or family issues that might be exacerbating work-related stress.

And some people who came in soon after the fire are still receiving help, says counselor Amanda Custer.

"For my folks, the severity of symptoms is definitely increased for those on the body recovery team," she says.

It's because of this continued need that the city has made this a long-term commitment. Because of the rare nature of the local team, Mishoe is hopeful that they can help train people in other departments to provide a similar service, all while staying committed to the core goal of helping Charleston's firefighters.

"We have people in the department who have yet to seek help," Mishoe says. "We hear people saying, 'When is this going to end?' We're not ever going to stop."

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