Enough Trauma For A Lifetime

Experience Leaves Rescue Workers Changed

If anyone in America is prepared for the devastation at the World Trade Center, it’s 49-year-old Tim Gallagher, former firefighter and now a leader of the Texas Urban Search-and-Rescue team.

“I spent almost 20 years on the street as a paramedic, Gallagher tells 48 Hours Correspondent Harold Dow. “Trauma was an everyday part of my life.” He thought he had seen everything until six years ago, when his team was deployed to help with the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing.

But that was before Sept. 11.

“This is a quantum leap forward in scope and magnitude,” Gallagher says of New York, where he and his team of 60 elite rescue workers took on a scene of incomparable destruction.

“I don’t believe there’s anything that can completely prepare you for what we’re about to go in and face,” he says, telling his team, “this is the most dangerous environment you will ever be working in your life”.

They left Austin, Tex., Tuesday and arrived in New York after a layover at McGuire Air Force Base.

“It’s almost surrealistic to see it ,” Gallagher says. “This is downtown New York City and you see this, it doesn’t compute. You’re driving into New York City and the twin towers are not there, what’s wrong with this picture. It doesn’t compute. I’m in a dream right now but it’s not a dream.”

This is the first big rescue mission for Travis Maher, 26. “I’ve run the gamut of emotions, from excited to nervous to anxious to sad to scared,” says Maher. “The whole gamut – I can do that in five minutes.”

Gallagher reassures him, saying that no one has ever been in an operation of this scale, even those who have been on the job for 20 years.

As they join the search, Gallagher tries to prepare Maher for what he will see at Ground Zero. “I put my hand on his shoulder and whispered a few things in his ear and said, ‘Let’s go out there and do the best we can, and go find our brothers and sisters that are under that pile,’ ” Gallagher says. “I can tell you that he’s gonna walk out of there a changed man.”

Back home in Texas, Gallagher’s wife Chris, a flight attendant, has been watching the rescue effort with more than passing interest..

And it’s thoughts of home and family that can sometimes keep team members working at what seems an overwhelming task.

They break the job down “one chunk at a time” Gallager says “because as you look at it, you could be absolutely overwhelmed by the magnitude.”

Even though it’s been eight days since the attack, Gallagher is still optimistic about saving lives.

“We’re still in a rescue mode of operation,” he says. “We have a long way to go before we’re ready to throw in the towel on this one.”

Travis Maher returns from 12-hour shift in the heart of the rescue operation in a state of numbness. “I think it will take the rest of my life for it all to sink in,” he says.

And for all his experience, Gallagher knows just what he means. “We will all be changed forever because of this incident,” he says “It will have a huge impact on us that will stay with us forever. “

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