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April 19, 2014

Healing wounds 19 years later

Red Cross team sees spike in bombing-related cases

EDMOND — A mental health expert said during the past 12 months a Red Cross Oklahoma City bombing team has opened more cases than during the early 2000s combined, and many are for first responders.

Hundreds of Oklahomans and others nationwide are expected to visit the Oklahoma City National Memorial site Saturday morning to participate in a ceremony for the 168 lives lost and remember the hundreds more whose lives were shattered 19 years ago.

On April 19, 1995, a 4,800-pound ammonium nitrate and fuel oil bomb exploded in a Ryder truck parked at the north entrance of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, causing the deaths of 168 men, women and children; many others were wounded.

Waves of police officers, firefighters, medical personnel and relief workers responded. Mental health providers were requested at all operational sites and in the community.

The American Psychological Association Task Force final report (1997) on the mental health response to what was at the time the worst domestic terrorist act committed on U.S. soil stated records indicate that excluding federal agencies:

• 74 police departments, 33 sheriff’s offices and eight state agencies sent 2,305 officers to the scene;

• 57 fire departments sent 1,894 personnel;

• 75 ambulance services sent 112 units, five helicopters/planes and 552 medics; and

• 11 urban search and rescue teams responded with 616 personnel.

The governor’s office reported that 30 children were orphaned, 219 children lost at least one parent, 462 people were left homeless and 7,000 people lost their workplace. The City of Oklahoma City estimated more than 300 buildings in a 48-square-block area were damaged.

John Tassey, Ph.D., Mickey Potts, LPC, Laurie Barbour and Ruth Wright are members of the Red Cross Oklahoma City bombing case team.

Tassey, who began serving with the Red Cross after the Edmond Post Office massacre of 1986, said many first responders who were there suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and many civilians forget about the “Post” part.

Immediately after the blast, mental health professionals provided services at the bombing site, local hospitals and the local chapter of the American Red Cross where family members gathered to receive information about loved ones. More than 70 local mental health professionals, activated by the Disaster Response Network, responded the first day.

Tassey were there on scene 45 minutes to an hour after the blast. That evening, he was at 8th Street and Harvey, providing “psychological first aid” to fire service personnel coming off shift, many of whom recovered victims.

Psychological first aid is a technique designed to reduce the occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder. Guidelines say it involves communicating calmly, communicating warmth, establishing a relationship, using concrete questions to help the person focus, coming to an agreement on something and speaking to the person with respect.

Within 24 hours, centralized operation sites were established — a Red Cross shelter for individuals displaced from a nearby apartment complex, a family assistance center at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church and a medical examiner’s office (the Compassion Center) death notification/family assistance center at First Christian Church, according to the final report.

Tassey said he was providing help about every day. He said first responders sometimes cope with stress by keeping focused on their work and staying busy. For some, at later dates they realized they needed help and sought it.

Caregivers helped each other by doing things such as limiting case load, Tassey said.

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