On the eve of the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks two decades ago, a retired Winnipeg police officer recounts his time in New York helping first responders deal with the trauma associated with the attacks.
“We witnessed the tragic events on TV. They lived it, so it was very, very hard on their members, all emergency service personnel and the citizens of New York,” said retired Staff Sgt. Steve Jones.
Jones had a background in trauma debriefings with a peer support team with the Winnipeg Police Service before he was called to help in New York.
Following the attacks, Winnipeg police got a call from the Canadian Critical Incident Stress Foundation requesting them to go to New York and debrief the NYPD’sfirst responders, many of whom were at the scene when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.
Based in the Federal Reserve Bank building in Manhattan, Jones was one of four people to make the trip. Another was their Chaplin Devon Clunis, who would later become Winnipeg’s police chief.
“Most of them that we spoke to hadn’t been able to speak to anyone about the horrific sights, sounds, smells that they had experienced,” said Jones. “Once they were to speak about it, they were able to process it and get past it.”
At night, Jones said, they would go out to Ground Zero to talk to officers on the streets. They were known as the peer counsellors from Canada.
One memorable interaction had Jones returning to his accommodations saying, “if we don’t help anyone here, I know we’ve helped one person.”
That person was a constable guarding Ground Zero named Jimmy.
During that conversation, Jimmy indicated he had not been home, nor had he talked to his wife or children since the attacks. He also said he was drinking a lot.
“At the end of our conversations, I remember looking back at him and he had told me, he said ‘I’m going home. I’m gonna hug my family. I’m not going to drink anymore,’ he said. And, as he talked to me, his hat was kind of awry. I’ll remember that always. He had tears in his eyes,” said Jones.
“It was something I’ll never forget.”
The emotional responses brought on by the tragedy were not limited to New York’s first responders.
Jones’ group would make the trip to Staten Island where barges of evidence were taken from ground zero. Hundreds of officers would sift through the rubble daily.
There they would talk to officers on their breaks and provide them with a non-judgmental forum to express themselves.
Jones said that as they walked through the rubble, they saw crushed vehicles, some of them police cars identical to those used in Winnipeg.
”I turned around and noticed one of our team members was openly weeping. It had such a profound effect on him, and all of us.”
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