In his nearly 20 years of disaster response work, Alan Brankline, a volunteer with the American Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Team, had never seen a situation like the I-35W bridge collapse.
"The collapse occurred in only four seconds," said Brankline, "and it was a disaster that, for many in the United States, was incomprehensible."
Brankline, who spends his days as a manager of medical social services at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., rushed to Minneapolis on the evening the bridge collapsed to assist the American Red Cross.
In the days that followed, Brankline watched and offered his support as families' emotions ran the gamut from disbelief to anger to grief.
A Career of Compassion
In a social work career that spans close to 30 years, Brankline has assisted local emergency medical services, served as an active duty officer for the United States Air Force and is currently a manager at the Mayo Clinic.
Through all of these experiences, Brankline has observed the human spirit at cumulative low points such as after a family has lost their home to a tornado, after a tragic accident, or after a death in the family. Brankline noted that even though the bridge collapse was rare, there were commonalities reflected in the grieving process of the families and friends of the victims.
From Disbelief to Anger to Grief
In his role as a disaster mental health volunteer, Brankline deals with the "here and now" of disastrous situations. His role is not to be a psychiatrist, he explained, but to support people in the initial hours after a disaster as they question and try to comprehend what has happened.
"We don't question why they feel how they do, but we give them an opportunity to talk it all out," Brankline said.
After the bridge collapse, Brankline first met with families Thursday evening as they gathered at the Family Assistance Center -- a central location for families that was created by the City of Minneapolis and assisted by the American Red Cross and other government and non-profit partners.
"When a disaster strikes initially, the human mind has great difficulty comprehending what actually happened," he explained. "There is a level of shock that takes a while to process. Emotionally and intellectually, it's very difficult for families and friends to truly wrap their minds around what happened so they seek information."
Brankline noted that in the first 24 hours after the bridge collapse, families were bombarded with information from the media, government officials, the Red Cross and the general public. Families attempted to filter the details through a host of questions that were percolating, but the information was often overwhelming.
"Families were overloaded with stimulus. They couldn't turn their minds off even to sleep," Brankline recalled. "They were continually thinking 'Why did this happen? How did this happen?' They weren't looking to blame anyone, but they wanted answers as they attempted to understand the situation."
Roughly 48 hours after Wednesday evening's disaster, Brankline watched as the families shifted from being stunned and in disbelief to feeling angry and upset. He noted that they were frustrated with the lack of answers and the seemingly slow pace of the recovery mission.
"Even though it doesn't seem positive, [being angry] is part of a healthy process of healing," he explained. "The person is saying ‘I now believe that this event has occurred. I'm acknowledging that there are unresolved issues and I'm upset about it.'"
Government officials recognized the families' frustration and regular briefings were held at the Family Assistance Center. Recovery workers, police officers and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) staff detailed the dangerous recovery mission and clearly explained why the process was slow and tedious.
Around the third and fourth day after the bridge collapse, Brankline saw a sharing of grief as families talked over their situation with other families.
"I saw families hugging other families," he said. "They found a common bond of grief and really supported each other."
As families return to their homes, Brankline noted that each individual is unique in how and when they deal with grief and loss.
As a Red Cross disaster mental health care volunteer, Brankline assists with emergency short-term mental and emotional care, but he recognizes that most families will need long-term support following such a tragedy. In partnership with government and other non-profit partners, families of the injured, missing and deceased are able to work with the Red Cross which serves as a conduit from the emergency short-term care to the long-term recovery process.
"Everyone deals with grief differently," Brankline said. "For some it will take months to recover, for others, years. Others may have difficulties with this for the rest of their life"
All American Red Cross disaster assistance is free, made possible by voluntary donations of time and money from the American people. You can help the victims of thousands of disasters across the country each year by making a financial gift to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, which enables the Red Cross to provide shelter, food, counseling and other assistance to victims of disaster. The American Red Cross honors donor intent. If you wish to designate your donation to a specific disaster, please do so at the time of your donation. Call 1-800-REDCROSS or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Contributions to the Disaster Relief Fund may be sent to your local American Red Cross chapter or to the American Red Cross, P. O. Box 37243, Washington, DC 20013. Internet users can make a secure online contribution by visiting www.redcross.org.