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9/11: Utah Remembers - Psychologist helped rescuers at ground zero

9/11: Utah Remembers - Psychologist helped rescuers at ground zero

By Marc Giauque | Posted - Sep. 11, 2011 at 3:30 p.m.

This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

SALT LAKE CITY -- Volunteers from around the world responded in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. Among them were many Utahans, including a psychologist who was part of a mental health team with the American Red Cross.

Psychologist and BYU professor Richard Heaps can vividly remember his first impressions when he arrived at ground zero the Saturday after the attack.

"The first thing was the metallic taste and smell that was in there. That was constant, and the constant smoke rising from the pile," Heaps said.

It was Heaps' job to help the rescuers as they completed shifts on the pile. He also dealt with families of victims who came to the site, like one family who showed up days after the collapse.

"I got permission to bring them in past the barricade, into the pile," Heaps said. But he said it would have been too calloused to bluntly tell them their loved one hadn't survived. Instead, Heaps gave them time to absorb the scene. Finally, the man's sister approached him.

"And she said, ‘Oh, he's probably not alive, is he?' and I said, ‘No,' because this was an individual who was on the 105th floor. And I said, ‘Would you like to stay here a while to say your goodbyes to your brother?' And they said, ‘Yes we would.'"

Later the family approached him, gave him a photo of the man and his 1-month-old child.

"And she said, ‘We'd like you to have this and take it back to Utah and show others and say thank you for letting you come and be here for us,'" he said.

They would hug those dogs, and virtually all of them would just be sobbing. It was nice for them to get connected with something living.

–Richard Heaps

One positive thing Heaps takes from the experience is the devotion people showed to other people, whether they were family members or fellow firefighters, police officers or EMTs. Heaps said rescuers would often spend a 12-hour shift on the pile, only to leave one area, walk to another site and work another 12-hour shift.

"People were becoming very exhausted," he said.

But he couldn't just approach them and ask them about themselves. Rather, he'd ask them about their family and help them determine they weren't doing their family any good if they couldn't do any good for themselves.

Sometimes, the rescuers would encounter a "comfort" dog as they left the pile. "And they would hug those dogs, and virtually all of them would just be sobbing with tears," Heaps said. "And it was just nice for them to get connected with something living."

Heaps saw his job as helping to connect people back to reality so they could begin dealing with it all.

"Usually what happens when people try to avoid something, avoid thinking about or talking about it, they end up focusing on what they don't want to think about," said Heaps.


He said people can choose to react with pessimism and a focus on all images of the destruction, or to take more positive approach.

"Any kind of traumatic experience leaves people with those choices, and as we make the more positive choices, we get to come out of the difficult times," Heaps said.

Heaps added, with all the images of the attacks being re-shown this week, some people may be feeling some of the same emotions they felt 10 years ago. He said if they're being affected, first they shouldn't subject themselves to more. And he advises people to find a place where they can talk about their emotional response.


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Marc Giauque


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