Friday, September 9, 2011


Joseph O. Prewitt Diaz[1], PhD
September 9, 2011
Cayey, Puerto Rico

In the morning I was awakened by a dog barking in the distance. I had a slight headache, stiff neck, was shaky and hyper-vigilant. The first thing I did was make coffee and check whether the tanks were full of the generator, then I looked at the cuvert where I keep the emergency equipment. As I sat down to take my blood pressure, I realized it was a sunny day and the weather forecast, was not calling for bad weather today or the rest of the weekend. After deep breathing seeveral times I was relaxed enough to reflect on my actions this morning.

I realized that my actions were consistent with traumatic stress reactions, these reactions were due to an event that happened ten years ago. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Around that time of the year,  I always get up experiencing the transitory experience.

My name is Dr. Joseph O. Prewitt Diaz, born in Cayey, Puerto Rico. I am a psychologist specializing in humanitarian assistance. I spent most of my life working on the Disaster Services American Red Cross (ARC). The night before the attack I had returned to my daughter’s in State College, PA for a  two weeks leave from my current  position as an International Delegate serving as  ARC Regional Coordinator for recovery for Central America after Hurricane Mitch.

In my role as Coordinator of Disaster Mental Health within the Disaster Services Human Resources (DSHR) , I was part of the National Team that responded air transportation events. The decade of 1990-1999  I served in many of  the traumatic events that would change the way the nation prepares and responds to natural and manmade disasters.
Some of these events were Hurricane Andrew, the attack on Murray Federal Building in Oklahoma City, several plane crashes, floods, storms, hurricanes and tornadoes. I felt sure that with the level of theoretical and practical experience I could phase any disaster, do my job and move on.

That night (Sept 10th) my daughter and I sat down to plan my days. The next day I had to drive her to work, pick up a prescription, take the car to change two tires and meet for lunch. I took her to work, and when  I arrived at the pharmacy I saw on a TV a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers in New York. I remember I told the pharmacist "this movie is very realistic what it is called" the man looked at me with a dull expression, and said “that not a movie it is an accident: a  plane crashed into the twin towers" and continued to fill the prescription, a few moments after the second plane crashed. Not sure of what I had seen, I called the Headquarters of the  Red Cross in Washington to ask what was going on, the voice at the other side answered, "seems to have been a fatal plane crash in New York, give me your phone number in case we need you." I called my boss in International Services and I he told me "this is an accident, do not think you need, just relax on your holiday, thanks for checking in."

When I reached the garage, I noticed a commotion in the waiting room. No one was attending the reception desk, all customers and employees were glued to the television. No sooner had the door open when I received a call from my daughter, she said "Dad, America is under attack, a plane just crashed into the Pentagon and I can not find Joito and Jerry." I told her not to worry that I would get in tuch with them, I commented that maybe this was a drill. Several days later I learned that my son and brother had gone unscathed  from such  ominous event.

Not a minute had passed when I received a call, the voice on the other side had a serious tone "we are under attack, two planes crashed in New York, one in the Pentagon, and they are tracking a fourth plane to somewhere over Pennsylvania, report to your nearest Chapter and call me back." I understood intellectually that it was a real issue. Pancho de la Roche was not a hype man, his ability to communicate in times of crisis was accurate. 
This was the real thing a thousand thoughts ran through my mind and I felt an adrenalin rush.

When I reached the chapter in State College, PA.  I checked in and immediately called Washington.  Fred forwarded my call to the Emergency Operations Center. I heard  the familiar voice of Dr. Susan Hamilton who greeted me cordially and efficiently. She explained what was happening and wanted me to prepare to leave for New York immediately. At the moment I heard from the other side "Oh my God”,” Jose hold one." Within seconds, the voice said, "José report to emergency management in Somerset, Pennsylvania, a plane just crashed there. By now you're in charge of mounting the mental health services in disasters, we will send staff when we can. " I asked how many hours" and she said, "In two or three days”.

When they arrived, I found that I was the only person from National”. I proceeded with the help of local volunteers, and the guidance from Washington to set up the DMH services that would be offered for the next four weeks, a clearinghouse for the rescuers, coordinating mental health services for the morgue, open the Family Reception Center and reported to the Center Federal Command. The next day Dr. John Weaver arrived and took over the operation, on day two Dr. Margaret Pepe who was in charge of the operation, John was in charge of dealing with the Family Center, and I was in charge of assigning the 27 volunteers.

I was sitting in the Command Center when the personnel from United Airlines put the names of the passengers of United 93. One of those passengers was a Puerto Rican professional who worked at the Census Bureau in Philadelphia, and happened to be on the plane on her way to California. In my previous trip, had the opportunity to make a presentation in Harrisburg, Pa on migration patterns of Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania, a member of the panel had been that person.

Needless to say how difficult it was to receive this family and make notification of what happened and what we expected to happen in the coming days. The mom had a heart condition and the Red Cross made arrangements to bring a Puerto Rican cardiologist Scranton, who happened to be a volunteer, to be with family during the four days they were in Somerset.
 The commemoration ceremony was very moving. Family members were driven in a bus to the place where the plane crashed. There was not much to see, only men dressed in white uniforms and a large crater in the ground in the distance. Personalities  like representing the United States, such as  Congressman John Bertha, members of the Executive Branch, the President of the Red Cross, Laura Bush, President Bush's wife were present and offered the condolences to each family on behalf of the Nation. Then we went to a place where there was a prayer meeting, and informal visits with each family. Each family received a little crystal box with soil from where their dear one’s had come in contact with the earth. That night I met the Puerto Rican  family and had a meeting to give closure to this part of the process and make sure that all formalities had been fulfilled.

Three weeks after returning to State College, I returned to meet with my children, and that afternoon I went back to Guatemala. I stayed  in touch with my collegues, at both formally and informally with the recovery process in New York and Washington.
One year later, in August 2002 I returned to Washington for an official visit of "debriefing" with peers who worked in the early days of the response. I still had not realized my traumatic response to that operation until this morning—when 9/11 came to life in my awareness.

[1] Dr. Joseph O. Prewitt Diaz is the recipient of the APA International Humanitarian Award and the Government of India Certificate of Distinguished Service (Silver Award). He is Adjunct Professor and Director of the Disaster Law Center, School of Law, University of Puerto Rico. He continues to be an active volunteer with the Puerto Rico Chapter American Red Cross