Coming Down From the Hero High

Copyright 2002 Newhouse News Service
All Rights Reserved
Newhouse News Service...03/20/2002

By DAVID ANDREATTA; David Andreatta is a staff writer for the Staten Island (N.Y.) Advance. He can be contacted at andreatta(at)siad

If you don't recognize Robert O'Donnell's name, chances are you remember what he did.

O'Donnell was the paramedic who slithered down a tomblike tunnel to free 18-month-old Jessica McClure from a deserted well in Midland, Texas, in 1987.

He ascended overnight to the rank of American hero, with a parade, a White House salute and countless TV appearances.

But gradually the news media's restless eye shifted away. A book deal failed to materialize. A cameo movie appearance was left on the cutting room floor. Eventually, O'Donnell's marriage crumbled, and an addiction to prescription drugs cost him his job with the Midland Fire Department.

On April 19, 1995, he went over the edge as he watched firefighters on television racing the clock in Oklahoma City. "When those rescuers are through, they're going to need lots of help," he reportedly told his mother. "I don't mean for a couple of days or weeks, but for years."

Four days after the bombing, O'Donnell put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.

O'Donnell's long descent into depression may be nothing more than one man's tragic struggle to get past his past. But it is also a cautionary tale in an age when firefighters, police officers and EMS workers have captured the imagination of a public hungry for real-life heroes.

Though no single rescuer became a poster child for Sept. 11 heroism, evidence of elevated social status was everywhere.

Some rubbed elbows with celebrities, attended White House dinners, met foreign dignitaries or participated in scores of news interviews. Others traveled overseas to accept donations from big-hearted communities, or visited the battlefields in Afghanistan to boost the morale of U.S. troops.

But six months later, the visible signs of appreciation are receding.

Firehouses have reverted to their traditional red-brick facades after once resembling flower shops. Corporations no longer salute emergency workers in newspaper and TV ads. And off-duty police officers are paying for their own drinks at neighborhood pubs again.

These are indicators the country is moving on remembering the tragedy without obsessing over it. But accepting a post-Sept. 11 world may not be as easy for those who risked their lives and were temporarily rewarded with an onslaught of recognition.

"Becoming a hero is like living in a balloon that is blown up and deflated," said Chuck Niedzialkowski, a counselor at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station in Washington state who specializes in disaster-related mental health. "Sometimes people who go through that have a difficult time afterward finding their shape in life."

Niedzialkowski, who debriefed relatives of U.S. sailors held in China for 11 days after their spy plane crash-landed there last year, helped the American Red Cross establish a crisis center in New York after the terror attacks.

He noted similarities between the treatment rescue workers received in the months following Sept. 11 and how the public greeted the spy-plane sailors, who got a heroes' welcome when they returned.

Though O'Donnell's reaction to his fame is rare, Niedzialkowski said, the anguish he suffered is not. "When you're rather blown out of proportion from your normal life, it's shrinking down again that is the difficult thing," he said.

But the disastrous consequences of Sept. 11 may have spared many rescue workers that curse. There is a big difference between the spy-plane and Baby Jessica incidents and the terror attacks. In the latter, catastrophe was not averted.

The World Trade Center tragedy left 2,830 people dead, including 343 firefighters, 37 Port Authority police officers, and 23 New York City police officers.

It is the great disparity in outcomes that prevented rescuers from basking in the public's admiration. Still, the instant celebrity was hard for some.

"It was difficult getting used to the recognition," said Firefighter Don Dillon, a five-year veteran of Rescue Co. 5 on Staten Island. "We weren't ready for it. We didn't expect it."

Suddenly, everyone wanted to shower the rescue workers with gifts especially money. Americans donated nearly $ 148 million to the city's Twin Towers Fund, with nearly $ 49 million already in the hands of relatives of deceased rescue workers, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

But Dr. Kerry Kelly, the chief medical officer of the New York City Fire Department, said inflated egos have not been an issue in the department.

"I think it's something in the back of your mind, you have a level of concern knowing (the story of Rob O'Donnell)," said Kelly, who oversees the department's counseling service. "Hopefully, (the firefighters) are well grounded in their lives and by their spouses who can give them a dose of reality when they need it."

In fact, the abated signs of appreciation signals a welcome return to life before the tragedy, she said.

"After you've had a loss and a wake, there's a part of you that wants to return to your house the way it was," Kelly said. "Firefighters have always enjoyed a positive role in the community, so going back to normalcy is easy for them. I don't think they need all these accolades to know people like them."

Inside Rescue Co. 5, which lost 11 members on Sept. 11, the walls are adorned with posters, photos, sympathy cards and handmade artwork. In the weeks after the attack, the firehouse received so many floral arrangements they had to be placed outside. Children gave their piggy banks.

Sitting on the steel bumper of a rig, Firefighter Dillon recalled returning from Ground Zero on Sept. 12. It was 2 a.m. and he was traveling by car through Brooklyn with other firefighters when they encountered a group of teen-agers holding up a sign reading, "Honk if you love America."

"We didn't honk and they cursed us out," Dillon said. "We were thinking of our wives, our friends. We don't walk around with our chests held out and thinking of ourselves as heroes. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the thought, but I'd rather have my friends back."