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Williams hopes memorial will bring healing to Okla. survivors & rescuers

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–Every time Joe Williams hears the name Timothy McVeigh, it causes a “big knot” to form in his stomach.

The former director of chaplaincy for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma wasn’t personally injured in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building at 9:02 a.m., April 19, 1995, and he didn’t personally have to help remove any of the victims. But he was in the “pit” and under the building with the search and recovery personnel who did just that for many days in the aftermath of the worst domestic terrorist attack in the history of the United States.

Williams is well known for his untiring efforts to help counsel both those who were victims of the blast and those who were involved in the recovery effort. He hopes the dedication of the Oklahoma City National Memorial helps many of those affected by the bombing to be able to “move on.”

In a sense, Williams really is another victim of the explosion. After years of counseling and praying with and for the victims and recovery personnel, he realized that his life had changed, and in a big way.

“I am told that I am more irritable, have less patience and am less tolerant of things that normally wouldn’t bother me,” he said. “I finally realized that I was just plain worn out by all of the work I had done.”

Williams finally sought help and attended a “compassion fatigue” course in Florida, a move which, he said, “changed my ministry.”

The course taught Williams that he, and others who counsel victims of disasters, “collect all their sadness, their grief, their anger and their bitterness,” which, in turn, produces compassion fatigue.

The course Williams teaches “restores resiliency in a person,” he said. “It also teaches them self-management skills, which they can use to help prevent it from happening again.”

Williams said counselors need to remember they are human, too. “A therapist told me he would not go to a therapist who did not have a therapist,” he said. “He’s really saying every counselor needs a counselor.”

Over the last five years, Williams also has seen many rescue and recovery personnel whose lives were changed forever by the bombing. “Most of our local emergency and law enforcement personnel had worked traffic fatalities, homicides, suicides and plane crashes, but they never had seen that many bodies in one place,” he pointed out. “Many of them buried those images deep in their minds and, after some time, those images begin to ferment and affect their personality.”

The result has been an untold number of divorces and several suicides, in addition to an increase of alcoholism in those workers.

Williams and others have conducted more than 50 Critical Incident Workshops since the explosion to help those affected. “The workshops, which last three and a half days, are designed to help these people unload all of that,” he said. “If they can ever get it out in the open, it can be dealt with.”

Faith is the key to recovery, Williams said. “A person with a strong faith can trust in the Lord and look to him as a source of comfort,” he said. “People without faith become bitter, and bitterness really eats at them, controls their life and affects every relationship they have.”

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  • Bob Nigh