Red Cross adds free counseling to aid it provides Psychologists will work at disaster scenes.

December 27, 1991|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Evening Sun Staff

It was a nightmarish coincidence when four Amtrak locomotives last April struck a Conrail freight train near Chase, just 300 feet from the 1987 Amtrak-Conrail collision that killed 16 and injured 175 people.

The second time, only two crewman were injured, but the accident still exacted its emotional toll on the residents, many of whom had pulled injured from the 1987 crash. "I can't believe it's happening again," said one woman. "Another wreck, another wreck."

In such situations, these people also may need disaster relief, the Central Maryland Red Cross has recognized. Not food, or shelter or medical care, but free counseling. Now, with the signing of an agreement earlier this month, such help is available.

Through the agreement, worked out by the American Red Cross, the American Psychological Association and the Maryland Psychological Association, free counseling will be provided to victims, members of emergency response teams and those who live in the affected communities, said Mike G. Ritter, assistant director of emergency services for Central Maryland Red Cross.

In Maryland, MPA psychologists will be on call to assist at disaster sites, and to run discussion groups.

"We recognize that a crucial aspect of disaster relief, beyond providing food and shelter, is helping victims and survivors cope with their losses through compassionate mental health counseling," said Elizabeth H. Dole, president of the American Red Cross, in a prepared statement.

"Our disaster mental health staff and volunteers, with members of the APA, will help victims heal the 'hidden wounds' left by


Central Maryland Red Cross, because of the Chase accident, was ahead of the national Red Cross in thinking about this new form of disaster relief, Ritter said.

"Nationally, there has been an initiative, particularly following Hurricane Hugo and the [California] earthquake. They saw, both in victims and emergency responders, signs of the stress that was produced in those two catastrophic disasters," Ritter said.

"But following the Amtrak train disaster, in January 1987, we had already seen here some of the same things that were later seen. We saw the need to administer to both the community needs and to help our own people."

Ritter said he had been particularly struck by two stories from the Chase crash. In the first, he was told of a paramedic who ended up leaving his job because of the stress caused by first Amtrak crash.

In the second, possibly apocryphal story, Ritter said, he heard of a woman whose kitchen window had overlooked the temporary morgue. For months, he said, the woman still imagined seeing the bodies on the lawn.

A training plan is under way and the Maryland Psychological Association will help develop a national "Disaster Response Network." The goal is to have programs in 50 percent of the American Psychological Association state chapters by the end of 1992.

Although the service has not yet been used, Ritter said the local chapter has developed a plan. "The theory is it can be delivered on site, at the time of the disaster," he said. "Those we might call 'defusings.' "

"We also see then the chance for follow-up, those would be called 'debriefings,' some that would be given initially as people disengage from the disaster."

Long-term counseling also might be available, Ritter said. However, the Red Cross would not take its programs into schools, most of which already have similar programs in place.

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