Nightclub fires challenge response

Counseling, advocacy is provided by faith community in RI, IL


"We are operating on faith and adrenalin."

—Rev. John Holt, Rhode Island Council of Churches

As Rhode Island continues to bury the victims of the tragic nightclub fire in West Warwick that broke out in the midnight hours of February 21, Chicago has completed the somber series of funeral services for the 21 people who were trampled to death the week before trying to exit the elite E2 nightclub.

Memorial services break up the grueling days for survivors and caregivers who are trying to cope with the disasters in both regions of the country .

In Rhode Island, the Rev. John Holt, Executive Minister of the Rhode Island Council of Churches and an ordained United Methodist minister, spearheads the pastoral counseling support for the families of the 98 people killed and the grief-stricken New England community, and oversees raising and disbursing relief funds.

In Chicago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson has pressed the forces of his local Rainbow/Push Coalition headquarters to rally pastoral care and community resources for victim families. According to Jackson, some 50 Chicago churches of many different denominations are providing counseling to the families.

This weekend, Jackson said, public school and social service officials are plan to meet with parents and the 35 children left by the 21 nightclub casualties. "We're going to hold a Children's Day Saturday to embrace the children who have lost parents and come together to plan to provide for them, for their immediate needs, for long-term counseling, family services and even educational scholarships," Jackson said.

In Rhode Island, Holt said, "We are operating on faith and adrenalin. We're still very early in this tragedy. It's still very fluid and a lot of things have not been finalized in terms of what will be done in the long-term arena for children, families and survivors. We are dealing with short-term needs, including round-the-clock pastoral counseling, planning funerals, and helping folks pay next month's rent."

Holt said nothing in his 18-year pastoral career quite prepared him for this challenge. "Since Rhode Island is a very small state and everybody knows everybody, just about everybody in some way has been touched by this tragedy," he said.

The 12-member Rhode Island Council of Ministries includes the American Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, Presbyterian Church USA, the United Methodist Church and United Church of Christ.

For Rhode Island victim families, the pairing of a small state and a big disaster could spell additional financial support for victim families, according to governor's spokesperson Madeline Parmenter. She said the state is waiting for a response from the White House on Governor Donald Carcieri's request for the nightclub fire to receive a disaster declaration.

In a written request for disaster declaration sent by Gov. Carcieri to the White House on February 24, the governor wrote: "I have determined that this incident is of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the State and the affected local governments and that supplementary Federal assistance is necessary."

In West Warwick, a long-term Family Resource Center opened Wednesday to replace the Family Service Center set up by the first responders and marking the hand-off of relief efforts from the American Red Cross to the State Department of Human Services according to Sarah Bilofsky, Director of Communications, for the American Red Cross of Rhode Island.

The help offered to victim families does seem to carry more significance than finger pointing at this stage, though, according to Major Robert Pheiffer, state coordinator for the Salvation Army in Rhode Island, the criminal investigation being conducted by the state attorney general's office holds the potential for more relief funds available to victim families. Pheiffer, who led the efforts to establish the Family Resource Center, said he understood that if criminal charges are filed, the state Victims Assistance Fund will provide an additional $25,000 per victim to supplement the pooling local and state resources.

In Chicago, the city's quick ambulance response, juxtaposed with conflicting initial disaster reports and overlaid with heightened national terrorist alerts spotlights the challenge communities now face in processing and reacting to a mass casualty situation. The low-level of immediate response drew some public criticism when families were left with no go-to agency to provide them information on their loved ones.

According to Major Pat McPherson, Disaster Services Director, Chicago's Metropolitan Divisional Headquarters of the Salvation Army, first responders were never really called to assist families.

"It only took an hour and a half for ambulances to come and go last week after the 911 calls went out," he said. " First reports to us were that there were 30-40 people who had suffered cardiac arrest. No one was sure if this was a terrorist attack; if there were hazardous materials. It didn't last long enough for us to dispatch personnel and assisting responders or go through the regular rudiments of an emergency," he said, "So we stood by ready to respond."

Jackson said Chicago's disaster preparedness -- scaled to a high profile venue more like the NBA basketball games and higher numbers of casualties -- had proven mismatched with the smaller scale disaster. "We need to fill that void, and we will do that."

He added that both Rhode Island and Chicago tragedies "have made the nation realize just how vulnerable we all are on the issue of public safety." He said, "These two crises were accidents. They could have been terrorist attacks. If they had been, we clearly were not prepared."

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