United 93: an interview with former Red Cross executive director Jeffrey Varnes

by Leonardo Salvaggio. An Italian translation is available here.

We offer today our readers the personal account of former Red Cross executive director Jeffrey Varnes who directed the Red Cross response to the United 93 incident on 9/11.

We would like to thank Jaffrey Vernes for his kindness and willingness to help.

Undicisettembre: Can you give us a general account of what you saw and experienced on 9/11?

Jeffrey Varnes:
I was the executive director of the York County, Pennsylvania, Chapter. The day started off with a meeting with my staff because there had been a tragedy at the York Fair the night before, when a young boy was injured and died on an amusement ride. Since the Red Cross had the first aid station responsibility there, I wanted to determine how we might have been involved in the incident, so I dispatched two individuals to go out to the fairgrounds and determine what our role might have been in the incident. Shortly after dispatching them I received a call from my wife who told me that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center. The feeling at the time was that this was a very small plane.

I was a member and a leader of the American National Red Cross Air Incident Response Team. As part of our training, whenever there is a plane incident we were instructed to call in and indicate our availability. Knowing the limited amount of information that I had, I called in to our headquarters and indicated I would have been available to go to New York if they should require me.

Our Chapter was located in a temporary facility because our permanent facility was being renovated, so we did not have a lot of infrastructure available to us but I was able to get to a television somewhere in the building so I could see what was going on. By the time I was able to do that the second airplane hit the World Trade Center; virtually everybody knew this was more than just a small plane. I had been put on stand-by then for New York City and for my own family protocol my wife was beginning to get my things ready to leave. Shortly after that, the news reports indicated that there was a plane that went into the Pentagon and there was a rumor there was a bomb outside the State Department.

When I went home to get my luggage we heard that a plane had crashed in Pennsylvania as well, in Shansksville which is close to Somerset. Shortly after that I got a call from our national headquarters that changed my assignment from New York City to Shanksville and I was instructed to report to our headquarters in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which was the Chapter that had jurisdiction over Shanksville. I traveled across Pennsylvania, which was a three and a half hour trip on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and as I was going across the state I listened to the radio to get the latest news. I had a call with our national headquarters and at that point I had no understanding of the role I was going to play, so I asked “What do you want me to do? What would be my role in the operation?” and they advised I would be directing the Red Cross response to the United 93 incident. This changed my whole prospective, rather than thinking of the small role I might have had in New York I understood the magnitude of being the director of the Red Cross response.

The Red Cross had always relied of me to go to high profile incidents because of my experience in working with high government officials and business leaders in addition to the disasters responsibility that I had. When I realized I would be directing the operation I began to formulate my plans for how I would approach the situation. In an air incident the Red Cross has traditionally been similar to a subcontractor for the NTSB, so most of my experience in mass casualties incidents was working with NTSB and our job was to care for families of people who perished or had survived the incident. Also one of our prime responsibilities was to conduct a memorial service for those who were on the aircraft. When I arrived in Johnstown I got a briefing on the geographical area that I’d be working. This might seem a little strange but one of the first things I had to do was to set up our headquarters from which all of us would be operating and set up all the communication elements that were needed.

Late that afternoon I was able to identify several potential headquarters sites, I completed my job in Johnstown and then proceeded to go first to Shanksville and then to Somerset, where the hotel was located. When I went to my room I started to contemplate what the next day would look like. It was overwhelming, I felt so alone at the time and with a lot of responsibility on my shoulders and kind of wondering how I would get through it.

The following day rather than the NTSB being in charge, it was the FBI who was in charge and it was the first time I worked with them so directly. My first meeting was with a number of agencies and it was convened by the FBI and the ATF; their first mission, I heard in the briefing, was they would be going through the field where the aircraft had crashed and identify pieces of evidence that could be plane parts, body parts or anything else associated with the incident, and they were instructed to put small “evidence” flags on the ground where they found anything. This was my first clue about some of the services we would need to provide in addition to our services to the families. Because many of these agents had never experienced a mass casualty situation before and they were going to see things they had never seen before, so that would have a mental and psychological effect on them that the Red Cross could provide mental health support for.

Following that meeting I went and identified a headquarters which was in a church right outside Somerset and it was located between the incident site and where we would be housing the families of the victims. We brought our communications team in and they were able to set up quickly their phone and internet lines. It’s important to underline that in the Red Cross we dispatch people who have expertise in various areas to help on an operation: logistics, mental health, physical health, social work, mass care. So I had never worked with the people who were on my team before, so one of the challenges was to assemble my team and understand the strength and the weaknesses of them so that you can arrange them to become a cohesive unit as quickly as possible. We set out headquarters, I got a system for credentialing our workers and we established our presence both at the Seven Springs Hotel, where the families were going to stay, and at the incident site, where we were providing food and beverages to workers.

Right in front of the canteen, there were mental health people, these people were trained to engage in conversations and debrief the workers when they came out of the crash scene so they could describe what they had seen as opposed to keep it inside and not talking to anybody about it. Most of the workers would prefer to engage our people rather than their agency’s assistance programs because they feared there would have been a record kept of the conversation and law enforcement people don’t like that kind of image. Our people kept no records of those conversations, so it was a valuable service to provide to them.

At the Seven Springs Hotel we set up an assembly room with roundtables and chairs, sandwiches and snacks for the families. We had our mental health and spiritual care workers who could listen to them if they wanted to talk about their loved ones. One of the problems was the plane took off from Newark to San Francisco, so there were East Coast and West Coast passengers on the plane and in those days after 9/11 no planes were flying; so we had families from the East Coast, because they drove to Shanksville from the New York area, but not from the West Coast initially.

There was also a command center in the basement of the hotel which assembled all of the agencies that were working with the families. I visited it several times to get briefed by my staff that were responsible for that area.

That went on for days, then the pieces of bodies were uncovered and sent to a mortuary which was another service site for the Red Cross. It was staffed with what they called DMORT, Disaster MORtuary Teams, which are made up of morticians from around the country who came in to support local officials; Somerset is a very small town so it needed all the help it could get to be able to identify the bodies. One of the first procedures that the DMORT does is to interview the families and try to acquire from them any DNA material that they could bring: a toothbrush, a hair comb, anything like that. For the families it’s very dramatic to go through those interviews and our mental health people were there to help them.

The DMORT members never faced mass casualty incidents like this either, so they were facing mental health issues too; we made an area outside of the mortuary where they could come on their breaks to get food and beverages and we staffed that area with mental health people too.

This lasted maybe five days at most and from a Red Cross point of view what we accomplished in a day was what we would normally accomplish in a week. I was on the phone constantly, sometimes two phones, to resolve issues or to meet certain problems. One of the things the director has to do is make decisions; if you make the wrong decision you correct it, but if you don’t make decisions you paralyze the whole operation.

We also had a political decision to make. A couple of nights after the event there was a memorial event at the Somersest County seat, which I was privileged to attend, it was an emotional event and they recognized all of the individuals who perished on the plane except for the perpetrators. So how were we going to recognize the lives that were lost on the aircraft? It was a very political decision as to whether we should have considered everyone or just the passengers. So we only had one candle to represent all the lives that were lost and people could include in that whoever they wanted to.

We also had to make a decision on the memorial service because the East Coast people were already there and were going to be going home soon; while the West Coast people were just starting to arrive. So we had two memorial services, one for the early arrivals and one for the late arrivals.

The families were wondering why they hadn’t heard from any federal officials: federal officials were at the Pentagon, in New York City, but no one came to Shanksville. That came to my attention, I was aware of the bureaucracy of the Red Cross and understood I could not meet the need of the families if I went that route. I was good friends with our congressman in my hometown, York, Pennsylvania, so I reached out to him, explained the situation and asked if the White House was interested in sending some representatives. He contacted the congressional liaison to the White House. Late in the afternoon before the memorial service I had a call from the White House and they told me that the President and the Vice President were not coming to the memorial service because of meetings they were involved with, but they would contact me shortly with the individual who would be representing the federal government at the memorial service. After that I received a second call from the White House who said “I’m able to tell you but you can’t tell anybody, you have to be on a hard line.” I let him know the number he could reach me at and he said “The person that will be coming is going to be Mrs Bush.” but I was not able to tell anyone in my team until I would get the secure call from the White House. I got back to the headquarters and I got the secure call from the White House and I was then able to brief my team. They had wanted me on a hard line because if we were on a cellphone some of the conversation could be overheard.

Shortly after that the Secret Service arrived and they conducted a surveillance of the area where she was going to be. When she arrived there was a line on each side of EMS personnel to greet her. When she got out of the car rather than go into the room they had prepared for her, she wanted to handshake with all the EMS people who turned out. I had never seen cars moving so fast, reposition themselves, and Secret Service agents move so fast to accommodate her wishes. She was the best person to come, rather than the President because she put a compassionate and empathetic face on the response to the administration, the President would have had to put a warlike face.

For the second service, Mrs Cheney came. She did an equally fine job with the families, when we went to the luncheon she went to each table and greeted them. I’ll never forget the families did not say anything about themselves, they said “We pray for you, for the President and the Vice President as you are facing this situation.”, they reached out with words of comfort to Mrs Cheney when she was trying to do the same.

Undicisettembre: How would you describe the crash site?

Jeffrey Varnes: The crash site was like a hole in the ground. I wasn’t allowed to get close to the crash site, I had to stay back because it was a crime scene. They only allowed credentialed law enforcement officials to be in the crime scene itself.

Undicisettembre: You mentioned working with the NTSB many times before 9/11, so what made this case unique when compared to the others?

Jeffrey Varnes: First of all the NTSB was not in charge, the FBI was. So everything needed to be treated as a crime scene. I had to daily fax to the FBI the names of the volunteers who were going to be on the scene so they could have complete knowledge and accountability of who was going to be there, I never had to do that when NTSB was in charge. Working with a federal law enforcement agency was a totally different responsibility or experience for me.

Another thing I would say was very different was the media intensity. They wanted to interview the families, the Red Cross traditionally tries to protect the families from media intrusion unless they desire to speak to the media. In this case what we did was to try to facilitate that. We briefed the families on the options they had to present to the media: they could do it in a press conference, a one on one interview, they could make a statement, make a statement and then open themselves up for questions.

Undicisettembre: Since you had to work on pieces of dead bodies, how do you react when you hear folks saying it was all staged and no plane crashed there?

Jeffrey Varnes: That’s completely false, there was a plane that crashed there. I was there. I experienced the smell and I saw the grief of the families; those were not fake families.

Undicisettembre: Are you involved with the response to the COVID-19 pandemic too at the moment?

Jeffrey Varnes: I am.

Undicisettembre: How would you compare the crisis after 9/11 to the crisis the country is living now for the pandemic?

Jeffrey Varnes: COVID-19 is an international phenomenon, while the initial phases of 9/11 were more domestic in nature. The loss of life was sudden, while with COVID it can drag out. COVID struck fear in many more people than 9/11 as to whether they can be personally involved. COVID had a mental effect on people who were required to be isolated for a long period of time. So the immensity of the impact of COVID on people is much more pervasive than 9/11 even if the shock to the nation was sudden rather than a growing kind of thing then with COVID-19.

We were able to sponsor vaccination clinics in the community where I reside now in Nevada and we were able to involve over two hundred of our residents to volunteering to help with the administration of the vaccine. What I didn’t anticipate was the effect that would have on our volunteers, it let them come out of their homes and do something that was good for other people and also made them socialize in a way they hadn’t done in the previous fourteen months. It had a very positive impact of our community. We now feel like we are on our way to recovery but we don’t know for sure.

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