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A WUSF Reporter Wrote A Book About 9/11 Firefighters. She Sees Parallels With COVID-19

Firefighters who lost colleagues and loved ones on Sept. 11, 2001 kept up with their work for many months following the attack. Kerry Sheridan tells what she learned about grief in writing about their work.

Twenty years ago, Kerry Sheridan had just begun classes at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. One of her professors was acclaimed New York Times columnist Samuel G. Freedman, who directed his students to cover the Sept. 11 attacks by following the aftermath, rather than the event itself.

Sheridan’s approach to the assignment arose from reading the newspaper lists of funerals for first responders.

“One day in early October, I went to a firefighter’s funeral,” Sheridan said. “And when I got there, I struck up a conversation with some of the guys in the fire department bagpipe band. I told them I was a grad student, and I was interested in writing about their experiences. They were willing to talk, and that's how it all started.”

Her book "Bagpipe Brothers: The Fire Department of New York Band's True Story of Tragedy Mourning and Recovery," is the product of the year she spent with the men.

That immersion taught her about how people persevere in the face of horrific events, especially those whose work demands repeated exposure to trauma.

“This group of men, they were so dedicated, even in the face of all the pain that they suffered with the loss of their parents, brothers, close friends. You know, they just kept on,” Sheridan said. “Some of them were digging at ground zero, picking up tiny fragments of remains and bones and others were playing at funerals, like, every day for months, and some of them did both.”

Despite its incredible burden, Sheridan said the work had value.

“They felt like it gave them a purpose; being there to recover the dead and to give honor to their memories," Sheridan said. "It gave a meaning to the losses that they'd suffered.”

Sheridan has been reporting on COVID-19 for Health News Florida and WUSF Public Media in Tampa. She’s interviewed health care providers, educators and parents in Florida, and sees parallels between what the 9/11 firefighters went through and what people on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic are dealing with now.

“You see this huge exhaustion,” Sheridan said as she recalled the events 20 years ago. ”If you were in with the firefighters, you knew there were funerals every day. But for a lot of people in regular walks of life, it seemed they'd already forgotten within a week or two of the events.”

She said there was a sense of bewilderment and apathy.

“A lot of times at funerals, people would come up to the guys and be like, ‘What's going on here? What are you doing?’ And they'd say, ‘It's a funeral for a firefighter [who died on 9/11],’ and people would ask, ‘Oh, it’s not over by now?’ And I think we're seeing that with coronavirus.”

Above all, Sheridan believes the two experiences provide a window to move from compassion fatigue to healing.

“What I think we're really missing is that opportunity that I think is so valuable: To come together and cry together and mourn together,” Sheridan said. “9/11 was a single event on a single day with an aftermath. But coronavirus is ongoing and we really haven't had that opportunity for national or community-wide mourning for what we've gone through.”

Kerry Sherridan
Said Kerry Sheridan: “This group of men, they were so dedicated, even in the face of all the pain that they suffered with the loss of their parents, brothers, close friends. You know, they just kept on."

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Lisa Peakes is the local host of NPR's All Things Considered on WUSF 89.7.