By Nan A. Canter
In the early morning hours of March 12, a tour bus accident occurred on I-95 on the outskirts of New York City. The bus had been returning to New York’s Chinatown from the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut with 31 passengers, mostly Chinese tourists, when the crash happened.
The driver told police he had swerved trying to avoid a tractor-trailer and lost control of the bus. The bus skidded for 300 feet before colliding with the support pole for a highway sign, which ripped through the bus, peeling off the roof from front to back, and sending passengers flying into the front of this bus. Fourteen people died on impact and many were injured.
Within hours, I was requested by the team chief of Chinatown’s CERT M3 to help staff the Family Assistance Center (FAC), which had been set up by OEM at the NYC Medical Examiner’s Office. As families and victims arrived at the FAC, the medical examiner’s staff and NYPD interviewed them to complete the identification of victims. CSI NY!
CERT M3 volunteers served as translators, escorts, and general support for the families, and assisted other agencies where needed. As a trained mental health professional — in addition to being a CERT volunteer — I assisted the distraught and grieving family members who came into the center.
This was the real deal, an actual emergency with multiple casualties, like those we had prepared for just months earlier. The experience illustrated to me how a CERT member can be deployed for many types of emergencies. It is about training, training, training, working closely when possible with other CERT teams, knowing your comrades and your strengths, and being willing to do what may at times seem to be non-CERT functions — because these activities build experience and good team coordination.
In time, OEM and the first responder community learn to trust your judgment, flexibility, and willingness to work within the protocols. My work at the Haitian Family Emergency Resource Center a year ago and my participation as Incident Commander of the FAC created for the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital’s “terrorist event drill” last fall certainly paid off.
While an emotional experience for me, the Chinatown mobilization was also very rewarding…. especially with the backdrop of Japan’s recent earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor disasters not far from my mind. I’m glad I have the training to be of service.