War & Peace: Overcoming Grief

By Emily Gold Boutilier / January / February 2002
July 1st, 2007
In her twenty years as a doctor for the New York Fire Department, Kerry Kelly never before felt unsafe at the scene of a fire. But on September 11, witnessing the collapse of the World Trade towers, she thought she was going to die.

Kelly, the department's chief medical officer, had arrived at ground zero to try to save lives. Two weeks later, speaking to a U.S. Senate committee, she described what she'd seen: "Bodies and debris raining down from the sky, deafening explosions, shouts of frightened people, and eventually the towers collapsing into a thick, acrid cloud that turned day into night." Though she set up makeshift triage centers, no one came for treatment. "People either died or survived," she says. Her own life was saved twice that day: first by a fire captain and then by a firefighter, who pushed her to safety as each of the twin towers collapsed.

The attacks claimed the lives of 343 firefighters (including Charles Margiotta '79), leaving the department with an overwhelming sense of grief. Many of the dead had a brother, father, or son also on the job, Kelly says. Some companies lost a third of their men. "There's a ripple effect on the entire department when something like this happens," she says. "It's a tightly connected group."

Kelly's primary focus since September 11 has been taking care of the bereaved firefighters and families who survived the attacks. She spends a lot of time simply talking to the firefighters, trying to convince them to take a break from their endless schedule of funerals, memorials, and searches for victims and replenish themselves by spending time with family. "In order to function as a department," she says, "we need a healthy workforce, both mentally healthy and physically healthy."

Kelly has also been seeking money to fund bereavement services. In a normal year, between three and five firefighters die in the line of duty. The massive increase has taxed her department's eleven-member counseling unit. Kelly took the problem to Capitol Hill on September 26: "In the [department's] first 100 years we filled a wall with the names of fallen firefighters," she told the U.S. senators. "On the 11th of September we created a new wall. I ask for the resources to provide the needed psychological support for our members and their families."

The daughter and granddaughter of firemen, Kelly joined the department at the suggestion of her father right after she finished her medical training. In more normal times, she devotes her workdays to giving physicals and treating on-the-job injuries. She oversees a staff of seventeen doctors, who serve the department's 15,000 firefighters, officers, EMTs, and paramedics.

Since September 11, Kelly has also been paying close attention to the physical health of the firefighters working day and night at ground zero. With the fire department's entire workforce breathing the air at the World Trade Center, Kelly wants to make sure they're not putting their health in danger by inhaling toxins. She has set up a medical monitoring program that requires firefighters to come to her office for a breathing test, chest x-ray, cardiogram, and blood work. Another of Kelly's worries is that the events of September 11 were so traumatic that firefighters will start retiring in large numbers. With this in mind, even as she takes steps to treat the firefighters' psychological scars, Kelly is also doing a lot of physicals on new candidates.

In recent weeks, Kelly, who lives on Staten Island with her husband, Dan Jost '74, and the younger of their two sons, who is a junior in high school, hasn't spent as much time as she'd like with her own family. "You feel like you want to do anything you can to help people," she says, "at a time when you feel you can't do enough to help." One weekend in November, she managed to get away from the city to see her older son at college. But her relaxation didn't last long: the week she came home, the fire department faced another disaster when an American Airlines flight crashed in Rockaway, Queens.


Emily Gold is the BAM's senior writer.
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January / February 2002