On the Front Line

A Massage Therapist and Former Firefighter Tells His 9/11 Story

By Karrie (Mowen) Osborn

A New York voice. An intentional pause between measured words. A snippet of emotion piercing the moment. A perseverance shining through a tired soul. This was retired New York City firefighter and massage therapist James Kearney telling his story in the aftermath of September 11, 2001.

Tending to the Wounded

James Kearney was seeking out a dream on Sept. 11. Aboard a ship on the Atlantic Ocean, he had hoped to offer bodywork to on-board scientists. All that became insignificant when Kearney first heard the news. “The need to be home was a desperate need,” Kearney said, six weeks after the attacks. “I knew firemen had to have been killed. Then one of the crewmen told me the numbers. It was devastating. The magnitude was beyond comprehension.”

It took him a docking in Africa, a flight to Paris and a week of anxiety to get home, but Kearney finally returned to his loved ones on Sept. 19. The news at home was even more unbearable. Kearney had not only lost many of his firemen “brothers,” but also his cousin, another New York City firefighter. Relief came in hearing his brother, also a NYC firefighter, was safe.

In the midst of grieving for his blood and brother families, Kearney said he hit the ground running. Eleven years on the job and it wasn’t hard to guess where he went first. Ladder 22, Engine 76 — his old company, his old firehouse.

While Kearney knew many of the firefighters who lost their lives that day, the men from his old company were graciously spared. “They got out miraculously,” Kearney said. “The chief was responsible for saving many lives. He had taken a megaphone and intuitively, without the blessing of Command Post, started ordering men out.” Many on their way up, turned around to heed the order. “They ended up in one of the few voids that didn’t collapse,” he said. “Some were trapped for five hours.” Kearney said these are the severely traumatized.

He explained how the trauma is hitting on so many levels. Between funerals and recovery efforts, New York City firefighters are still manning their stations. “They’re going from funeral to funeral with no respite.” Kearney said there is an incredible grief permeating the men and women. “I think it will only get worse before it gets better.”

In addition to the emergency personnel so directly impacted, Kearney said the needs are incredibly high throughout all of New York. “Some Red Cross areas are desperate,” he said. “These workers are calling for help. They’re dealing with displaced, stressed out people.” The needs of these volunteers is just as critical, he said, citing the example of an art therapist who, while in the midst of her massage, started crying. “When she got up, she said the reason she was weeping was because someone was taking care of her,” Kearney said. “Chaplains and ministerial people are dealing with the same thing, too” he said.

Survivor, grieving family member, caretaker, rescuer, bystander, witness — Kearney believes there is one simple truth for all. “We all need to be touched, especially now.”

Seeking Self-Care

The same is true of massage therapist and bodyworker. As Kearney explained his need to help and the comfort it brought him to work with the affected families, his words stopped. The tears flowed quietly for a brief moment before he continued on.

The grief comes in waves for Kearney, he explained, but he’s learned to respect it. “I have my own healing process that I have to attend to. This is grief that I won’t repress — any of it. I’m willing to feel so I don’t have to carry it forever.”

Talking with people and being with people are Kearney’s two outlets. “I need to collapse in people’s arms too,” he said. “We can’t become part of the working wounded if we’re going to help.” It was a mistake he almost made early on. “When I first got down there, I hit the ground running and didn’t stop to relax. I realized that if I wanted to be of help to anyone else, I needed to take care of myself first.”

His plea for the rest of the bodywork community is to remember to take care of each other. “This disaster has really mobilized the healers and it’s truly, truly been appreciated,” he said. But it’s important to understand the dangers.

“When you are working with a family dealing with this kind of pain, you take on the pain yourself. It’s almost a secondhand trauma, which is what so many therapists are experiencing.”

Trading bodywork is imperative, as well as having someone to talk to. Kearney said he’s been relying on a colleague for just that. He said all bodyworkers are energy workers of a sort, and as such, need to dispel the energy of grief and pain to remain effective. “At times I was realizing I was taking on the grief of everyone I was working on. We have to have a way to discharge that energy.”

Temporary Peace

While rescue personnel find purpose and importance in “bringing home” as many victims as they can from the Trade Center rubble, Kearney finds validation working with the victims’ families. He said it’s especially healing for him when he has the opportunity to massage the family of someone who is lost. “It’s almost like helping my own family who’s suffered the same loss.” To see even a second of relief is a joyous moment. “It’s such a wonderful thing to take people whose bodies are containing so much of this stress and grief, and be able to bring them to some temporary peace.”

He said seeing so many firefighters “jump on the chair” told him a lot about the impact of the tragedy and the walking wounded’s unspoken understanding that touch was something their bodies craved.

Kearney remembers the one police officer who stopped him on the street. “I was going through one of the check points and the officer said, ‘Whoa. Where are you going with that,’ ” pointing to his massage chair. “I ended up giving a massage right there on the street.” He said people are starting to understand, and this tragedy has helped put massage in a different light; moving it in many peoples’ eyes from luxury to an important and “human” healing modality.

One of those converts, according to Kearney, was an EMS Disaster Medicine Director from New Mexico. This doctor was attempting to have massage included as part of the Red Cross disaster response for the future. “She said what we were doing was a lot more beneficial than what her own medical people could do.”

“We Can”

Today, Kearney continues to minister to the grief-stricken through his hands, while he prepares for the next wave of distress — that which reels its ugly head in the form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms. With his bag of bodywork tools, ranging from Swedish massage to cranialsacral therapy, Kearney said he’s ready. “I’m in this for the duration.”

What wisdom can he offer his colleagues in the profession? “Recognize the power of what they can offer – the comforting of bodies and souls of all the people in this nation, wherever they are. New York may be Ground Zero,” Kearney said, “but the entire nation has been wounded.”

As a parting thought, Kearney wanted therapists to know how important they are. As those who can so quickly remind the world how simple, and how important, it is to touch someone, it’s imperative the knowledge is shared. “We are so lucky. We are so fortunate to have something that is so desperately needed. Everyone in this country feels a tremendous need to do something, and we can.”