Women Rescue Workers in New York City Still Struggling to Return to Everyday Lives

By Susan Hagen and Mary Carouba

Coming up in Sonoma County's February

Women's Voices

We recently returned from a week in New York City, where we spent considerable time with female police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and EMTs who responded to the World Trade Center tragedy on 9/11/01. We’ve known these women for just over two years now, and while much of the nation seems to have moved on, these rescue workers are still struggling to recover from the physical and psychological impact of that event. Some are still having surgeries to correct torn ligaments and damaged joints. Others are grieving the loss of colleagues who have committed suicide since the terrorist attacks. Many continue to suffer from respiratory illnesses caused by breathing polluted air the government promised was safe.

When we think about courage, we can’t help but think about these women. But even today, just as they did when we first began interviewing them for our book, they insist they were not heroes on that day and did not feel particularly courageous. “I was just doing my job,” was the common refrain. Even so, all 30 of the women we interviewed admitted to the terror they experienced on a day that took the lives of nearly 3,000 people in their city – 409 of them police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel. Still, they remained on scene and did what they could to rescue, protect, and provide medical care to others.

Isn’t that one definition of courage, we wonder? Taking decisive action, even in the face of overwhelming fear?

As we listen to the stories of their lives today, two-plus years after the event, we see their courage in a different light. We see it in the daily effort it takes to remain in law enforcement, to remain in the fire service, to remain in emergency medical services after witnessing the greatest loss of rescue personnel in our nation’s history. None of the 30 women we interviewed for our book have quit their jobs, though two followed through with planned retirements and two were forced to retire early because their injuries were so severe. In all four women, we see quiet, humble courage as they search for ways to restore meaning to their lives in the absence of careers they had sought to build since they were children. We know it’s not easy for them to let go of their public safety personas, whether voluntary or not. We think it must take as much courage to move on as it does to stay.

For those who remain in public safety, there’s the constant threat of more terrorist attacks, the heightened security, the sense that no one is ever really safe or can ever be safe again. We think of our friends on duty at the New York airports, on bridges, in underground subways and underwater tunnels, on the streets of Manhattan and the outlying Boroughs. Members of the NYPD and FDNY respond to bomb scares or threats of bioterrorism every day. We think of our friends working overtime while we’re enjoying the holidays, imagine them patrolling the parades and parties throughout the city, ever vigilant of the suspicious package or person on the street. They all deny it, of course, but we think it must take a tremendous amount of courage to put on those uniforms every day and set out into an increasingly unstable, unpredictable world. They have our utmost respect for the courage it takes to make that daily choice.

Perhaps their greatest show of personal courage has been in their willingness to tell their stories despite the flashbacks of horror and fresh pain that come with each retelling. When these women were here in Sonoma County a year after 9/11, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in full dress uniform on the stage at Spreckels Auditorium, uncomfortable with the seemingly endless standing ovation they received, visibly unnerved by the 700 people on their feet in the audience before them. When each, in turn, took to the podium to recount her story of that terrifying day, she did so with a purpose far greater than her own desire for recognition. She did it for the children, for the young girls who deserved to see heroes in their own likeness, for the young women who needed role models that weren’t visible in the mainstream media, for the community that wanted to help carry the burden of collective grief through the personal, individual stories these women so generously shared.

These aren’t women for whom feelings come easy. They are private and humble, stoic and tough. Telling their stories took courage. We honor them with our deepest gratitude for the gift they have given us all.

Susan Hagen and Mary Carouba are co-authors of the post-9/11 book, Women at Ground Zero: Stories of Courage and Compassion (Penguin Putnam, 2002). After witnessing firsthand the trauma suffered by the rescue workers they interviewed, Susan and Mary mobilized 100 Sonoma County volunteers and raised more than $140,000 to bring 35 of New York City’s female rescue workers to California for a week of rest and recognition. They subsequently established the “Women at Ground Zero Scholarship Fund” at Santa Rosa Junior College to help local youth enter careers in public safety. Susan Hagen is an award-winning writer, long-time writing teacher, 10-year veteran of the fire service, and certified CPR instructor. Mary Carouba is a professional presenter, educator, investigative social worker, and advocate for abused children and elders. Currently, they are available for speaking engagements and have just released their “Live the Life You Love” empowerment series of workshops for women. See their ad on page ___ of this issue or visit www.womenatgroundzero.com. Contact Mary at 707-322-7433; Susan at 707-824-6886.