Oklahoma City survivor shares advice for managers

Terror, it seems, comes in the morning. On Sept. 11, it came at 8:45 a.m. and 9:05 a.m. at the World Trade Center, at 9:40 a.m. at the Pentagon. It was 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, when Oklahoma City's Alfred P. Murrah building was blown open. Former Veterans Affairs Department psychologist Paul Heath had stepped away from his desk on the sixth floor of the Murrah building for a meeting that morning when the face of the edifice was sheared away by Timothy McVeigh's bomb. Heath was not seriously injured. He led and helped carry several grievously injured colleagues to safety. Heath, now retired, has served as spokesman and counselor for survivors since the bombing, so much so that when he returned home from a Missouri vacation after the Sept. 11 attacks, 58 calls from reporters awaited him on his answering machine. "It was shocking to me," Heath said of last week's attacks. "This is nothing like being in it. There's a distance to it emotionally and every other way. I now know why so many people had that look on their faces after I told them of my experience--like it was just another event. For the people in it, it's not." "Their families, agencies and co-workers need to be very, very sensitive," Heath added. "After [the Oklahoma City bombing] my ego was like a ...boil ready to pop any minute." Heath has some advice, borne of living through a horrifying experience, for federal managers and employees attempting to carry on in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. "People should be given the choice of coming back to work or taking time off. If you force people who are phobic to come back, you're going to lose a bunch of them. They will quit or go on sick leave for some other reason. It happened in Oklahoma City." Traumatic events often wound people in invisible ways. The Oklahoma explosion caused casualties far from the site, says Heath. "We had a guy who was not in the bombing, but was about a mile away, who's never even driven by the spot since then. He goes about three blocks out of his way so he never has to look at that spot." Heath says agencies with offices in Oklahoma City brought in counseling services for employees and built special memorial rooms in their new locations. "People who got upset during the day could go to those rooms. They became special places and an escape," he said. For those injured and the families of those killed, small accommodations made big differences, Heath said. For example, having the same caseworker handling their workers compensation claims over time made a huge difference to survivors, he said. Heath also worked with the workers compensation staffers to help them understand the psychological toll on survivors, whether they were in the building or not. "They were not used to working with people with emotional disorders," Heath said. He added that the city also has seen increased incidence of stress-related diseases among federal workers since the attack. In a Housing and Urban Development Department office that lost 43 workers to the bombing, 13 people have since developed diabetes, according to Heath. He urged managers and compensation specialists to be alert and sensitive to the stresses that come with massive trauma. Heath also advised agencies to be prepared for some staffing difficulties as they get back to work. In Oklahoma City offices, survivors, who had bonded after their ordeal had problems adjusting to working with new employees brought in to help after the bombing. "Survivors were a cohesive unit and felt different toward each other than they did toward new people," Heath said. "The Social Security Administration and HUD had changes in top management and when those managers came in, some of the lower level managers had to step up and deal with those who survived." Heath also advised that if affected agency offices bring in new or extra employees to help them get back into action, those employees should be experienced and knowledgeable, not green and inexperienced. "In order to make the customers of the agency comfortable, [those employees] should be familiar with the forms, the computer system, etc.," Heath said. In the coming weeks and months, survivors and those affected by the attacks may need an occasional reminder that their first responsibility as federal employees remains serving the public. "Tell them the public's business is more important than the agency's employment role," he said. In the aftermath of the attacks, the Office of Personnel Management has posted on the Web a disaster guide for managers, "Handling Traumatic Events: A Manager's Handbook," and has provided benefits, leave, hiring and other information on a special post-disaster Web site. Heath offers another reminder: The victims of the Sept. 11 attacks weren't just in New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania. He received a late evening telephone call Sept. 16 from a Murrah Building survivor still working for the federal government. "He said he hadn't slept since Tuesday and he wasn't sure he could keep on working," Heath said. "It's tough," he added. "People feel frightened and unsafe. The images they see on television are just so powerful."
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