Loss of Innocence: Massage at Ground Zero

Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, August/September 2006.

It’s difficult to look back. And it hurts to remember. September 11, 2001. It was a day, and it was an eternity. It’s when grief stole America’s smile, and when the air of an entire city was thick with dust and death.

Like the rest of the country, bodyworkers felt scared and helpless in the siege of human suffering. Yet, we all experienced that day in different ways, from different eyes. We shared a spectrum of those experiences with you on these pages five years ago, all of us trying to make some sense of the senselessness. They were poignant stories that offered a snapshot of people helping people. Today, in this age of disaster, genocide, terrorism, and fear, it felt important to check in on the “massage missionaries” we met back then to see if the experience has changed them.


Just as the experiences of 9/11 and its aftermath were uniquely individual, so was the process of finding the way back from what some call “a shared experience of hell.” For some massage therapists who came to volunteer services in the early days of the disaster, there’s no doubt they remain in the center of the storm’s eye. Some say 9/11 and its aftermath hasn’t affected them at all. For others, the experience remains too fresh and “too precious” to share. And then there are those who say the very foundation of their lives changed that day.

What follows are stories about a few of the people who were part of that effort five years ago. They found themselves scattered around the battered city, working in conditions and places they would have never dreamed. They are the ones who learned that working behind surgical masks doesn’t stop your flow. Or that touching a client through a dusty FDNY T-shirt doesn’t hinder relief one bit. They are the ones who, with a table hoisted on their back, trekked out of the “war zone,” only to be stopped by a weary police officer begging for a massage in the middle of the street. Or the ones who, through a brief massage, gave a spent chaplain working at Ground Zero the energy to carry on. Let them tell you their stories, in their own words.

Jim Kearney

New York massage therapist and retired firefighter Jim Kearney has traveled a long road since September 11, 2001. But along the way, in the midst of incomprehensible shock and grief, Kearney says he mostly remembers the miracles—the stories of healing.

The path this man took five years ago and the choices he made has brought him to a defining place in both his personal and professional lives. The work he did on those brutal days of September stole his professional innocence, and now, he confesses, “It’s all I’ve known.” But Kearney wouldn’t change a thing. It’s the foundation for his passion today.

Like most of us, Kearney vividly remembers where he was when he first heard news of the attack. But for this New Yorker, it was more where he wasn’t. He wasn’t at home. Initiating his professional dream, Kearney was offering bodywork to scientists aboard a ship on the Red Sea. But with news of the disaster came a complete life shift that’s still impacting him.

“The need to be home was desperate,” Kearney told us five years ago. “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.” After a week of struggling to find a way home, Kearney landed on U.S. soil and hit the ground running. He was greeted with more tragic news—his cousin had been killed in one of the towers and untold numbers of his FDNY colleagues had fallen. There was some respite in knowing his brother, also a New York firefighter, was safe, as were his “brothers” from Ladder 22, Engine 76 Battalion—his old company.

Kearney was compelled to do whatever he could for the people of New York and set out to find what that would be. He followed true to the oath he voiced back then—“I’m in for the duration”—and volunteered at the Family Assistance Center in Lower Manhattan, working largely with family members. Every day for six months he lived and breathed the tragedy and pain as he worked on countless bodies and souls.
Knowing full well the value of bringing bodywork to survivors, Kearney was torn when the assistance center eventually shut down. But he also knew he had to spend time dealing with his own issues, too. “I felt overwhelmed—at a loss,” Kearney remembers. “There was so much that needed to be done, and you’re still in the throes of it yourself. On one hand you’re kind of a victim of this, but at the same time you’re trying to go help fellow victims.”

Kearney will be the first to tell you that his personal healing was a collaborative effort, one that found nurturing, comfort, and touch within a circle of bodyworkers he befriended and worked with in the aftermath of 9/11. “But I’ve always worried about the bodyworkers who went home,” he says of other volunteers who came from across the country to help. Even for the bodyworkers based in New York, Kearney says those who didn’t have someone to process and share the work and the experiences with suffered tremendously. “They didn’t have the opportunity to be with other people who really knew, who felt the same grief and the same experiences ... and also the tremendous joy from being able to contribute.” That’s not something you try to explain to someone who hasn’t been there to experience it, too, he says. “I was blessed with a group that I’m still involved with—fellow healers from that time. To have a support network was so crucial. I wasn’t alone in the process.”

He knows he also wasn’t alone in the number of bodyworkers who might have pushed themselves a bit too far during a time when all anyone wanted to do was help. “People who are drawn to this work, they often don’t think anything about running themselves into the ground.” Yet, veteran bodyworkers will tell you that self-care is a must when working in an environment of intense grief and sadness. Part of that self-care process for Kearney was a workshop for trauma relief taught by an organization called Sky Help. It was there he learned the valuable lesson of looking at the blessings of the experience, regardless of its pain. It’s those blessings, that loving response to the bad, that Kearney says creates space for the good.

Kearney’s dedication to trauma work didn’t stop when relief efforts for 9/11 victims ended. Over the last five years, he’s found himself in Bosnian refugee camps and more recently in Mississippi for five weeks of post-Katrina efforts. He made another relief effort there this May as well. “As devastating as 9/11 was for me and the rest of us, the vast scale of trauma to those amazing people in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana was 9/11 times a thousand,” he says. “Everywhere was Ground Zero there. And our bodywork community has another opportunity to show the world what compassionate touch can do to soothe an exhausted soul. For the people in traumatized areas, you don’t have to knock those doors down,” Kearney says of the willing. “The power of simply touching someone with compassion is universal,” and understood.

Working with the first wave of victims is always gratifying in this line of work, Kearney says, but offering bodywork to medical and ministerial staff is work that sustains the overall relief efforts. Just as massage therapists can’t work nonstop without respite, neither can relief workers. By touching them, the ripples of that effect will continue to wash over all those they help, too.

Times of Change

We know 9/11 changed a lot of things, but did it change Kearney as a bodyworker? Undoubtedly, Kearney confesses. “I went from massage school to Ground Zero.” Literally. He had just finished massage school and a year of craniosacral training, and hadn’t even begun to start his practice when the world changed. “I was just embarking on my career.” Yet, Kearney believes wholeheartedly that he had just the right amount, and kinds, of training for what he was meant to do. “I don’t think it was a coincidence I had the training I had, when I had it. I think there were people unknowingly placed by unseen hands to give me the skills I would need.”

There is also a sense of brotherhood Kearney can offer others now, based on what he saw those months in the trenches. It’s what he found happening with the people he was working on in Mississippi after Katrina. He says when a therapist has a wound, even after it’s healed, it resonates with the wounds of the client. As long as the therapist can stay neutral and grounded, it can be an effective pairing. “It’s why a war veteran can be the best therapist for a war victim, as long as he’s done his own healing.” It’s why he believes more and more of his clients are finding themselves unwinding old, sometimes long-forgotten traumas on his table. And it’s why Kearney knows he needs to grow professionally, again.

Ultimately, the work Kearney did on Pier 94 reframed his focus. “My experience with 9/11, and my prior training with trauma, brought me to work with trauma on a broader scale,” he says. Kearney now sees his work evolving into something new. “I’m feeling steered to combine bodywork with clinical social work,” he says. “With my craniosacral work, I end up doing a lot of processing with what’s coming up in the client’s body. When you’re used to working with craniosacral, even when doing massage, that mode seems to elicit issues up into the consciousness. It’s an area that’s very deep, and I want to be more prepared.”

So we know it changed individuals within, but did the aftermath of 9/11 impact the massage profession? Not as a question of economics, but of spirit and strength? “September 11 was the first wave of understanding that bodywork wasn’t just getting your body waxed,” Kearney says. “It was the first time people saw bodywork as an extremely valuable healing modality. We’re not long out of the massage parlor world. I still get called a masseuse every day. I think a major breakthrough for the massage profession happened with 9/11, and also down in Katrina. But it’s sad that trauma has to be the reason.”

Heartfelt Work

In the world of disaster medicine and psychological trauma work, the value of bodywork is known well, Kearney says. “Bodywork, by far, offers the most immediate healing (in disaster settings). And because the pain is so great, the relief is that much more profound. It hasn’t been able to bury itself; it hasn’t gotten into the bones yet. When you’re able to release in the beginning, there’s a lot less trauma to carry.” After a disaster or extreme exposure to a disaster, Kearney says, “new neural patterns are formed in the brain. If people experience bodywork soon after, this can be a reorienting of the nervous system, helping the body and mind remember their original templates.” Ultimately, touching someone in crisis can be powerful.

And using your heart in the process is key. Kearney says that’s the lesson he tries to impart when teaching new massage students. “I ask them to put their hands on the shoulders of another and imagine touching a piece of white marble.” For the receiver, he asks them to simply be in touch with what they are receiving. The resulting experiences are nothing extraordinary, in fact, the touch is cold. “Then I have them think about blessing their partner with encouragement, that they’re going to get through this process together, while also touching their shoulders.” And what is the experience now? “They are astounded at what comes through; the bonding is instantaneous.” Kearney says this is what comes out of your heart when you touch someone; it is communicated through the touch. “I wanted them to learn right at the get-go the power they had, just from their hearts. It’s something I knew from my own work; I learned it quickly in the aftermath of 9/11.”

You don’t have to think about working this way, Kearney says. “You just have to want to touch with your heart.” And not everyone can do it, he says. “You are going to have your bodysmiths who are not necessarily in touch with their own hearts. They may have tremendous clinical skills, but they won’t touch on the psychospiritual healing.”

Not everyone is cut out for this particular aspect of the profession either, just as spa work and medical massage suit some and not others. “There are some of us who are called into this,” Kearney says of working in trauma relief. “Everybody has their own piece to the healing puzzle.”

Kearney is a different man, and without doubt a different bodyworker, than he would have been if 9/11 had never happened. “I think I have the experience of not knowing any other kind of bodywork,” he says, wiser, but not hardened because of it.
Five years of growing and processing have transformed Kearney into a bodywork missionary, he says. “It seems like disasters keep piling up on each other. And I imagine there are a lot more like me, who are being called into this work for the same reason, for the piece we’re bringing to this puzzle.”

The healing that bodyworkers can offer in times of great pain and despair is a tremendous gift. It’s what so many of those who were there those dark days of September and October already understand. “I want the entire medical and healing community to know the power of this,” he says. “I think it’s another way for the world to see bodywork in a whole different light. This is what will bring us credibility and respect.”

Diane Cherico

Diane Cherico was one of the hundreds of massage therapists who sought out ways to help after the 9/11 attacks. Only practicing for a year, and renting a therapy room out of a New Jersey training facility, Cherico says like most everyone else in the country, she felt helpless. After clients began coming in saying they’d lost people, she was compelled to do more.

Cherico took her chair to the Federal Reserve Bank a few times, but that experience was too hard. “It was too much for me,” she says. “It was too close to it all.” Instead, Cherico spent about a month volunteering at the assistance center on Pier 94, working with Red Cross workers, families of victims, police officers, and firefighters. It was an experience she recalls as “amazing.” And Cherico knows she made a difference there, especially as she touched people those first few weeks. “One NYPD stands out in my mind,” she says. “He was very distraught and didn’t think he mattered much. He kept hearing the sounds of the bodies dropping (from the towers). I spent a lot of time working with him and urged him to get some therapy.” She says the officer sought her out weeks later to thank her for the work she’d done and for urging him to get help. “It made me feel better that I was able to be there for all of them.”

When Kearney, her friend and former student, suggested her work would be greatly appreciated in the firehouses, Cherico found her calling. Once a week, for the next two years, Cherico took her table to Battalion 11, Engine 76. She would work on a half dozen firefighters while there, often enjoying a meal with the men before leaving. She also worked with another house that lost seven of its men on September 11. She keeps those stories to herself.

“They were all very grateful for the work we were giving them,” she says. “A lot of them had never had a massage before. At Ground Zero they were working their butts off. A lot of them had neck pain, upper-back pain, and lower-back pain from the work.” She says she gave them exercises to do at home with the help of their wives, trying to get families to reconnect and touch in their own healing process. She explained things like visualization, breathing techniques, and what she calls visual dropping—an exercise she says is much easier for a client to implement than just telling themselves to relax.

The time Cherico gave in the 9/11 aftermath helped more than just those on the receiving end of her hands. “It helped me, too,” she says. “We were all in a mind-set of ‘what can I do to help?’” She says she was lucky enough to find an outlet for that need.
The memories of those days stay with Cherico. She admits not only has she changed, but her profession was transformed that fateful day as well. “After 9/11, I do believe the profession changed,” Cherico says. “It definitely got more serious.” And so did the work, she says. “The seriousness of massage changed. It was not just a little backrub. People were getting problems in their body from the trauma. There were absolutely somatic changes in my clients after 9/11. Massage was a relief to get away from the world—to talk if they wanted to, to be silent if they wanted to, to feel the touch of a caring person.”

Cherico remembers those days both with a pained heart and a sense of pride. Difficult as the experience was, Cherico wouldn’t have changed her course of action and knows the work she gave those endless days was important on so many levels. “Without a doubt, the touch of a caring person made a difference in these people’s lives,” Cherico says.

Linda Tumbarello

Josephina. That’s the name Linda Tumbarello has given the woman who ended up on her massage table at the Family Assistance Center one month after the towers went down. Josephina had worked as a cleaning woman in the towers, and now she had no job and no community to connect with. She hadn’t ventured outdoors much since 9/11 and hadn’t slept for most of the month. “We worked together maybe thirty minutes, and I was able to help her calm down and release some of her sympathetic nervous system overdrive,” Tumbarello says as she looks back to those intense days. “She clearly felt better, and I suggested she come back to the Family Assistance Center again. She looked me in the eyes and asked if I would be there. I couldn’t promise her that.” From her face, Tumbarello knew that this woman, who so desperately needed care, wouldn’t be coming back.

“When I think of Josephina, my heart breaks for her,” Tumbarello says. “I still wonder what happened to her. There are people I can still actually see, or feel, from that time,” she says. “I remember putting my hands on that woman. It was like volts of electricity running through her body.”

But it’s not just Josephina that haunts Tumbarello. This trained psychotherapist and bodyworker says what pains her most is the amount of help that was needed in New York City, and the lost opportunities when we failed to meet that need. By the end of November 2001, Tumbarello says the volunteer venues for bodyworkers had pretty much dried up. She recalls looking for a place to volunteer her services on the one-year anniversary, but found none. Her services as a counselor, however, were still being paid for. “People got paid to do traditional counseling, but we had to volunteer to do bodywork.” Yet, it was being touched that people wanted—and needed, she says.

It was ultimately her encounter with Josephina that prompted Tumbarello to start the Healing Touch Fund, a bodywork resource allowing those in need to return to the same therapist with whom they’d originally connected. “I wanted the Healing Touch Fund to provide this ongoing therapy—over time and with the same practitioners—to ameliorate the effects of this extreme trauma.”

Even though the project was short-lived, Tumbarello says she put her heart and soul into the effort until she realized she would not get funding from a relief organization and she couldn’t retain the role of fundraiser. “I think I did a good job of letting go of the project,” Tumbarello says. “I knew I had a choice—either burning myself to the ground or just stopping. So I stopped. But it broke my heart, and I’m still disappointed.”

Like Kearney and others, Tumbarello reiterates the necessity of tending to yourself in the throes of crisis. “By the time this was all over, I needed some pretty deep healing,” she says. “Even though I worked hard on protecting myself as much as I could, it was pretty hard to not take stuff in.” She sought out some energy healing, because from a spiritual aspect, Tumbarello says she felt she needed a “larger perspective” after 9/11.

And like her fellow bodyworkers who responded to the crisis, Tumbarello says there’s no doubt she’s changed as a bodyworker. “I thought I had worked with people with extreme trauma before.” Having helped clients dealing with childhood traumas and sexual abuse, Tumbarello says she thought she’d seen the worst. “But to feel that kind of grief ...,” she says, letting the thought trail away. “I did a lot of just putting my hands on people’s heads,” she says, being present for those on her table the best she could.

The what-could-have-beens still bother Tumbarello—why wasn’t any substantial money directed to body therapies; why wasn’t bodywork made available for more than six months (sometimes only two); why aren’t the rescue, recovery, healthcare, and ministerial people getting continuing care, even today?

“Yet, as devastating as the whole experience was, on the other side, I was glad I was there,” she says. “I could really see how people were helped.”


Their stories are just as important today as they were five years ago, but what’s most valuable is the message they want us to remember—that the field of massage changed that day, too. That massage was seen in a new light, that people witnessed firsthand its power in the trenches of grief and suffering, and that touch is still the best gift anyone can give.


www.atss.info—Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists
www.istss.org—International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies
www.traumacenter.org—The Trauma Center
www.traumahealing.com—Foundation for Human Enrichment/Peter Levine
www.stws.org—Serving Those Who Serve
www.skyhelp.org—Sky Help Trauma Recovery Services
www.rapideyetechnology.com—Rapid Eye Institute, to release stress/trauma
www.emdr.com—Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing Institute