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Comfort Central

She has seen acts of heroism and valor. And she has seen the searing toll of human tragedy. As a Red Cross counselor, 'Dusty' Bowenkamp eases the pain of families and rescuers caught up in disaster.


NEW YORK — Christine "Dusty" Bowenkamp's exposure to heartache--from the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Hugo to the ongoing anguish of Trans World Airlines Flight 800--also has given her a window on heroism.

As a senior mental health counselor with the Los Angeles chapter of the Red Cross, Bowenkamp is the agency's preeminent mass casualty specialist. When a storm strikes, a bomb rips through a building or, most recently, a jumbo jetliner explodes, it is not long before she is on the scene to help victims pick up the emotional pieces.

She often counsels those who performed acts of valor, such as rescuing the injured from a still-smoldering building, or who assisted victims in other ways--thereby subjecting themselves to traumatic experiences "that will stick with them the rest of their lives."

And she has seen displays of remarkable selflessness. She recalls the South Carolina business owner who worked nearly around the clock helping victims of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 even though he too had lost his majestic home. He hosted a barbecue for fellow relief workers on his bare cement foundation and served beer in the only thing he had left: a solitary bathtub.

Bowenkamp has spent nearly two weeks here, the first of them holed up in the well-secured Ramada Plaza Hotel near John F. Kennedy International Airport along with hundreds of relatives of the 230 passengers and crew who perished on Flight 800. It is her 30th major calamity.

"Disasters create needs, and I want to do my best to try to help people heal psychologically, as well as physically," Bowenkamp said as she escaped the hotel for her first break after a weeklong blur of 16-hour workdays. "And that goes not only for the disaster survivors but for disaster workers, who are many times overlooked. The psychological trauma for them can be just as overwhelming as for the victims."

Bowenkamp, 50, embodies an American tradition that dates from Clara Barton, "the angel of the battlefield" who aided the wounded during the Civil War. Barton introduced the idea of disaster relief in peacetime when she founded the American Assn. of the Red Cross in 1881.

Bowenkamp, trained as a psychiatric and trauma nurse, estimates that she has counseled 1,000 disaster victims from America's recent national nightmares, including the Northridge earthquake, the Oklahoma City federal building bombing and the TWA crash. She also helped developed the first Red Cross mental health program in California.

During her first frenetic week here, she assisted in overseeing Red Cross activities at the hotel and administering to those who needed comfort or counsel. Then she relocated to the Red Cross headquarters near the southern Long Island crash site to run the agency's overall TWA-related mental health program, which has mobilized 350 volunteer professionals. She is the only paid mental health staff member on the scene.

"We'll deal with it," Bowenkamp calmly told a distraught volunteer at the headquarters, where she is supervising the counseling of Coast Guard recovery workers and FBI investigators, among others. "Remember: flexibility, flexibility, flexibility."

Amid the "organized chaos," Bowenkamp seeks to strike a balance between feeling compassion for those she is assisting and avoiding being overwhelmed by their plight. "Empathizing without sympathizing" is the way she describes the distancing process.

Which is not to say that the Yorba Linda resident has not been moved by grief-stricken relatives or by the public response to their tragedy. She still fights back tears when she recalls the throngs lining the roads, bowing and saluting, as the families returned from an emotional seaside memorial service near the crash site in the Atlantic off East Moriches, N.Y.

And Bowenkamp acknowledges that she herself has become "a secondary victim" on occasion in her 22 years as a volunteer and two years as a full-time staff member.

The first time was amid the massive destruction of Hugo, a ferocious six-day storm that left 85 dead, blew apart buildings and inflicted billions of dollars in damage. Bowenkamp said she drove back to her hotel each evening with tears streaming down her face after a long day assisting stricken residents.

She was most devastated by the Oklahoma City tragedy when a bomb demolished the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 167 people and tearing through the heart of the Midwestern community last year. She was there for five weeks after the blast but remained haunted by what she calls "one long tragedy" until the one-year anniversary when, watching the memorial events on television, she broke down and had a good, long cry.

"You couldn't separate yourself from that disaster," she said. "Everybody I talked to either knew somebody who was in [the building] or was related to somebody who was in there."

Bowenkamp has won a reputation as an unflappable disaster management professional.

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