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Healing from excruciating stress For the 1,100 who responded to the horror on Long St., counseling helps them cope

Dave Bissonette says he's OK, but his red, watery eyes, which have seen a lot, tell a far different story.

Ask him about the stress of working on the front lines of a tragedy -- a fiery plane crash that claimed 50 lives -- and he will acknowledge that, yes, he saw workers break down.

"And, frankly, that's a good thing," said the Town of Clarence's emergency services coordinator.

Even more people, he quickly adds, simply look numb. And that worries him just as much, if not more.

"Everybody processes this stuff differently," Bissonette said. "And the fact that it's in your backyard makes it even tougher."

Bissonette knows that his workers -- more than 1,100 people worked on some aspect of the recovery and cleanup effort -- will need help getting through the life-changing tragedy of Continental Connection Flight 3407.

And what about him?

"I'm doing fine," he said. "My time to decompress hasn't come yet."

But he knows that it will.

Like the flags flying at half-staff Monday, the anguish, anxiety and deep-seated trauma confronting police, firefighters and other front-line workers are some of the legacies of the Feb. 12 crash on Long Street.

The town, well aware of those lasting effects, is requiring that its first responders go through stress-management counseling. Other employees are being encouraged to use their Employee Assistance Program.

"It's important people have an opportunity to heal," said Clarence Supervisor Scott A. Bylewski.

No one knows that better than Sister Martha Olszewski, a Red Cross mental health volunteer active in counseling first reponders and families of the crash victims.

On the day after the accident, she was in the Cheektowaga Senior Citizens Center, already counseling relatives.

"We let them talk, and we let them cry," she said. "A big part of it is just being there for them. It's all part of helping them face the reality of what they're going through."

That day alone, she talked with about 20 family members, each of them with a different story about whom they lost and how much they miss them.

Most of them, she said, were simply too busy dealing with the practical consequences of the crash -- contacting other family members and making funeral or memorial service arrangements -- to think about counseling.

"Right now, caring for themselves is the last thing on their mind," she said at the time.

In the days that followed, Sister Martha also met with police and firefighters at the Clarence Center Volunteer Fire Hall, just around the corner from the crash site.

She found not only sadness and anger, but also a single, collective purpose among the workers with whom she spoke. Almost all of them, she said, seemed motivated by the desire to find a personal belonging amid the rubble that might help a family member reach closure.

"I kept hearing, 'We had a good day today because we found something,' " she said.

Trauma experts attribute this reaction to the sense of helplessness that first responders often feel when dealing with fatal accidents, especially those in which there are so many deaths.

To help deal with that, firefighters at the Long Street site often met at the end of the day to talk privately and collectively about what they were feeling and how the experience affected their families.

Sister Martha said workers also seemed buoyed by the community's response, which ranged from an endless stream of donated food and drink to the e-mails and homemade cards that now dot the walls of the fire hall.

"First responders are supposed to be pillars of strength. They're supposed to be inoculated against this," said Donna Levin, a professor of psychology at Hilbert College and an expert on social psychology. "But that's not true."

Levin thinks the kind of post-traumatic stress that roots itself in tragedy can be compounded by the shear enormity of the loss -- in this case, the death of 50 people -- or by the ugly circumstances of a specific accident.

In this case, it's the reality that 50 people died instantly in a fiery plane crash that destroyed a family's home and left remains that were difficult to identify.

"We aren't supposed to die like this," she said. "For these families, it's tough to wrap their arms around the fact that their family members were -- poof -- gone."

Unlike most families who lose loved ones, these people didn't have the closure that comes with a visit to the hospital or morgue.

"That's very difficult, and that will affect closure," said Sara Montz, director of the Transition Life Center in Cheektowaga, an organization offering grief counseling.

For those families, Montz said, closure may come in the form of a new tree planted in the victim's memory or a huge bunch of balloons released into the sky.

Even more important, she said, is answering the brutal questions that family members often ask. Among the toughest? "What was it like for my loved one to die like that?"

"It's important to answer those questions," Montz said. "It's important to validate the feelings they're having."

She also knows that for many of the families, their anger, sadness and depression may last for weeks, months and maybe longer.

Few know that better than Bonita Frazer, a mental health administrator who worked at ground zero after the destruction of the World Trade Center in Manhattan on 9/1 1 and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Frazer, emergency planning coordinator at Lake Shore Mental Health and a member of the multi-agency response to the crash of Flight 3407, said the signs might be mental, physical or spiritual, or a combination of those.

Things to watch for include poor concentration, trouble solving problems, angry outbursts, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, decreased sex drive and increased drinking. Mental health professionals try to offer reassurance that such responses are normal.

"It's good for people to know," Frazer said. "When you tell them, you sometimes hear a sigh of relief or see the shoulders relax or the facial features soften."

The time to worry, she said, is when the symptoms continue weeks later.

"Dealing with a disaster can be overwhelming, but it's also my belief that a crisis can be an opportunity for growth," Frazer said.

"Many people do recover -- and gain something from the experience. They may look back and say, 'I'm a stronger person for it, and I can handle anything,' or, 'I'm closer to God now.' "

News Staff Reporter Tom Buckham contributed to this report.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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