Superheroes in Disguise
New Jersey Task Force 1 Responds
by Valerie Davia
Ground Zero just days after the attacks as the Task Force assembles and is assigned an area.
As the events of September 11th unfolded, most of
us watched our televisions in a numbed state of
shock, fear and horror.
But for members of New Jersey-Task Force 1, our state's urban search and rescue team, personal grief had to give way immediately to action. Within minutes of the
initial impact, members were paged and deployed to Manhattan, the first search and rescue team called to the World Trade Center site to find people and save lives.
The 140 members of Task Force 1 live in a state of 100% readiness to respond to any emergency. Their cars are always packed with the clothing and gear they need for at least 72 hours. When their pagers ring, they have less than two hours to get to the Lakehurst naval base where they organize for deployment. They are firefighters, structural engineers, hazardous materials experts, flooding specialists, heavy rigging engineers, logistics experts, search dogs and their human handlers, equipment managers and medics. They are highly trained, hugely equipped, and supremely motivated. They know how to burst through brick walls, shore up unstable buildings, manipulate remote cameras and listening devices, operate jackhammers and torches, and most importantly, safely get into the crevices of collapsed buildings to find and save the missing.
"When you've got an emergency, you call the fire
de-partment; when the fire department has an emergency, they call
us," sums up Jim Riley, coordinator of Task Force 1 and the retired
fire chief of New Brunswick. In its nearly five-year history, Task
Force 1 has responded to both natural and human disasters, including
collapses at a Trenton warehouse and Irvington parking garage as well
as flood rescues during Hurricane Floyd. Riley continues: "We
don't replace local forces, but we bring the additional expertise and
equipment that is essential in a large-scale rescue effort."
The medical team for the NJ
Urban Search and Rescue team is pictured with
Kathe Conlon, first woman admitted to the team, on
the far left end. The Task Force is made up of
firefighters, medical personnel and a canine force.
Kathe Conlon, a registered nurse and community
burn educator for St. Barnabas' Burn Foundation, was still at home
when her pager rang on the morning of September 11th. As a
medical member of Task Force 1, she rushed to Lakehurst to begin the
screening process, to ensure that team members were healthy
and physically prepared for the intense demands of rescue work.
Once assembled, the NJ state police escorted the team into
Manhattan, where they were guarded by military units and state police officers,
a necessary precaution in light of the threat of "secondary terrorism," or terrorist attempts to cripple those first to respond.
By mid-afternoon, the team had set up its base camp in the
Jacob Javitz center. From there, two teams of 31 people each went to the
site in 12-hour shifts. They congregated at a secondary command post
a couple of blocks from Ground Zero, taking their instructions from the New York City emergency personnel who coordinated the rescue work.
The team camped in tents at the Jacob Javitz Center in midtown Manhattan.
Within each team of 31 people, there are specialists
in planning, search, rescue, medical support and logistics. The
searchers use sophisticated electronics such as devices that pick up cell
phone signals and tiny cameras with 360-degree viewfinders. Ten search
dogs and their handlers are also members of Task Force 1, and are among
the first to be put to work. Once a searcher finds someone,
rescue experts use whatever tools they need to get to the victim. The
logistics people keep all the tools maintained and ready to go. Like other
medical support members, Kathe Conlon carries packs of first-aid
equipment and medical supplies and care for both disaster victims and
team members. Since there are no veterinarians on the team,
the medical members are also responsible for the health of the
dogs and have received specialized training in canine
Task Force 1 members
dressed for the daily job of search. Kathe Conlon, far left.
On Conlon's first night at the site, a team located the body
of a firefighter. "It's an unwritten rule in rescue work," says Conlon,
"that firefighters rescue their own."
The team called in the firefighter's unit and then watched as 15
very emotional men carried out their friend and brother. Of all
the heartbreaking moments, that was Conlon's toughest.
How do the rescue workers cope? As they returned to the
Javitz Center at the end of each shift, team members met with
debriefers, psychologists with experience in critical incident stress management, a specialty that helps individuals deal with acute levels of trauma. The psychologists look for specific symptoms immediately after each shift and in the days and months that follow.
They make regular calls to each team member, to check on eating and sleeping patterns, alcohol consumption, and general mental health. If there are problems,
more intensive care is provided. But usually there aren't. As Conlon
says, "It's what we train for, it's what we do. Most of the team members
have backgrounds that have taught them how to cope." Many are
firefighters, some have military training, and others, such as Conlon, are
in professions where they witness terrible trauma every day.
NJ Task Force 1 searched daily in the Customs Building. This
photo was taken from that building.
Conlon didn't grow up planning to be a rescue worker.
Now a devoted aunt to her six nieces and nephews, Kathe was the oldest
of four children in a close-knit Maplewood family. She attended
St. Joseph's Elementary and Columbia High, and remembers her first
date in Maplewood village. Like most girls growing up in the '50s and
'60s, she thought she'd be a wife and mother. She graduated from
Seton Hall with a degree in education, intending to start out as a
teacher. After a difficult marriage ended in divorce and finding no teaching
jobs available, she took a job as a phlebotomist, a medical
worker who takes blood samples, at St. Barnabas Medical Center. It
was there that she met her first burn patient and discovered what she
would do with her life.
"Burn care is difficult and highly specialized," she explains. "People either love it or hate it." Conlon loved it, completed her nursing degree, and spent 13 years working in The Burn Center at St. Barnabas, renowned as one of
the nation's best. Since 1989 she has worked full-time as a community educator with the Burn Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports The Burn Unit. Conlon travels the state and nation to teach front line workers _ firefighters, police and emergency medical staff _ how to treat burn victims at disaster sites and transport
them safely to hospitals.
Acting NJ Governor Donald DiFrancesco visited the NJ Task
Force in Manhattan and was reunited with Kathe who
had nursed his daughter Marie (pictured with her
father) after a severe burn she sustained years ago. When
he saw Kathe at the Jacob Javitz Center Gov. DiFrancesco
was with the President's entourage. He spoke to President Bush as
he introduced him to Kathe, "This is the nurse who
helped save my daughters life."
"Kathe is really invaluable
to Task Force 1," shares Jim Riley. "In
addition to her unmatched medical knowledge and her
specific experience with burn victims, she takes care of much of the
medical logistics, making sure equipment and supplies are on hand and
in good shape. And because she trains front-line workers, she's known
and respected by emergency personnel from all over New Jersey."
Conlon's familiarity with the state's emergency
response system is what prompted the invitation to become a Task
Force member in 1998. She began her preparation in Atlantic City,
where a hotel demolition gave the team an opportunity to train in a
disaster-like environment. Task Force training also involves
demonstrating competence in walking on an elevated beam, carrying
substantial weight a certain distance, climbing the aerial ladder on a fire truck,
and being able to quickly get into a harness and drop down into a
hole, "routine stuff for a firefighter,"
she smiles. (Not at all routine for tall, slim, middle-aged nurses,
I'm thinking. But I'm already convinced that the members of this team
are superheroes in disguise.)
The members of Task Force 1 spent 11 days working around
the clock at the trade center site, after which teams from other states
were rotated through by the Federal Emergency Management
Agency. Now the NYC Fire Department is working with building
contractors and heavy equipment operators to continue to clear the rubble
and recover the missing.
St. Barnabas Medical Center welcomes back one of their own
when Kathe returned to work, after 11 days at Ground Zero.
"I don't want to sound trite," Conlon shares, "but it
really was like that Dickens line, `the best of times, the worst of times.'
What you see on television doesn't begin to capture the depth of
the destruction. But it also doesn't capture the incredible spirit of
the city _ from the rescuers to all the people who couldn't do enough
to help. It means everything that people acknowledge what's gone
She continues: "I grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the
Star-Spangled Banner, and I always thought I appreciated my country. But on one of my shifts it was 3 a.m. and as light as day. I could just barely see the flag waving through the dust. That's the moment I really understood the words for the first time. You think you appreciate freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to pursue your dreams, but it's different now. It's just different now, and so much more precious."
Kathe's home was a welcome site after the sleepless nights she spent with
the Task Force in Manhattan. Her many nieces and nephews prepared for
her arrival with signs, balloons and flowers.
Valerie Davia is in awe of
the courageous and generous work of Task Force 1. She feels intensely grateful
and infinitely safer knowing that Kathe Conlon and all the team members
of Task Force 1 are always prepared for the unthinkable.
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