Cover Story

'Do not enter.'... '
God bless America.'

On any other day, "it would be just a ride in the country," said Gregory Rys, PhD, a Johnstown, Pa., psychologist who volunteered at the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa. But on the Saturday after the attacks as he drove to the site to report for volunteer work, the road was blocked, said Rys, a practitioner at a small rural hospital. "I carefully rounded the barriers and continued. Further down, another flashing sign beamed 'Do not enter.' 'Road blocked.' 'God bless America.'"

Rys sought to volunteer immediately after the attacks, but like many others, he was put on the Red Cross's standby list. He was finally called to report at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 15, to work the night shift.

"My duties were humble and nebulous," he said--primarily handing out food and boosting the morale of the rescue workers. He walked around the crash site constantly, "making a deliberate point of physically touching everyone, thanking them, shaking hands, listening."

After a couple of days, he was assigned to work the morgue during the morning and afternoon to greet the workers. "Some joked and called me the maƮtre d'," he said. "I thought I was being subtle, but a federal employee looked at me and asked, 'Are you the counselor dude?'"

During his experience, he remembered work he'd done with Vietnam veterans several years ago. "I was astounded by how casually these remarkable men would recall incredible acts of heroism and bravery," he said. "I remember how embarrassed and sometimes angry they would become when I naively called them 'heroes.' The word is used again in describing these passengers and recovery workers. I've used it myself. But as I now remember my veteran mentors, I recall their lesson: 'We're not heroes, just fellow human beings caring for each other.'"

'A beautiful, peaceful place'

Blossom Aberg said she can't get over the miracle that United Airlines flight 93 crashed and didn't hit another building. Its final resting place was "a beautiful meadow, surrounded by hills. It's just a beautiful, peaceful place," she said.

Aberg, who retired in 1992 as director of pupil services in the State College Area School District, in State College, Pa., was one of the mental health workers the Red Cross called in on Sept. 11. Like many who went to offer help, she gave support to the early responders--the Salvation Army, FBI, police and other workers who came in for the rescue and recovery mission.

"There must have been 15 to 20 trucks of people who came, as well as media trucks," she recalled.

She listened to the fears voiced by the volunteers. One woman whose daughter was in a nearby school when the plane hit the ground said the child thought it was an earthquake. "She imagined that the bad people had survived the crash and were hiding in the bushes," Aberg said. "Her mother had to reassure her that she was safe."

After four days of volunteering, Aberg went back home. But her life was still unsettled. "I'm tired all the time and having a hard time getting back into the routine. And we all have those questions in the back of our minds--What does this mean? How will we deal with it?"

She's found one positive change in the aftermath of the events: "Now when I say I'm a mental health worker, people don't have uncomfortable looks on their faces. Now they say, 'Oh yes, we need someone who can provide mental health care.'"