Albuquerque resident counseled first responders and survivors of 9/11

New York City firefighters salute as a flower arrangement bearing the helmet of Capt. Tom Brown, a fireman killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is carried from St. Patrick’s Cathedral following a funeral Mass. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

Every year, about a month before the actual date, Geri Lynn Matthews feels 9/11 coming on.

“I know it’s coming, and I want the day to be over,” said Matthews, 64, a retired clinical and medical social worker. “When it is 9/11, I can’t wait for it to be 9/12.”

Geri Lynn Matthews

Matthews is a native New Yorker, but she has lived most of her life in Albuquerque and she was living in Littleton, Colorado, on the day of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers.

She and her husband, Michael, a 30-year Air Force veteran and also a New York City native, moved back to New York six days after 9/11.

“A lot of people were leaving, and we were moving back,” Matthews said. “Before 9/11 Michael and I had been talking about moving back, or at least visiting, because he had a brother there who was dying of cancer and I had a sister there. When 9/11 happened, I said ‘Let’s go.’ I just felt compelled. I have a lot of experience working with trauma, and I just felt like I could do what I do best. I had no job set up and no place to live there. We just started driving.”

As they drove into the city over the George Washington Bridge, they could see the smoke from the Twin Towers site.

“Family took us in until we could find our own place,” Matthews said. “We lived there for four years.”

During those years, she worked for a Fire Department of New York counseling services unit, helping firefighters and other first responders deal with the trauma of their experiences and trying to help survivors cope with the loss of loved ones and long-cherished plans.

It was the stories of those people that hit her like shrapnel, inflicting the invisible wounds that resurface every year at this time because she knows 9/11 is not done claiming victims.

“A lot of people are still dying of gastrointestinal diseases, an assortment of cancers, a lot of respiratory illnesses,” she said. “There are a lot of mental health issues, a lot of stress, divorces, suicides and alcoholism.”

Harrowing stories

Matthews was born in Brooklyn and moved to Long Island when she was 12. She was in her mid-20s when she came to Albuquerque in the early ’80s, following her parents who had fallen in love with the city during a visit. She earned a master’s degree in social work at New Mexico Highlands University and held licenses in medical social work and clinical social work.

When she arrived in New York after 9/11, she applied for work with the city fire department, but she was working as a counselor for the U.S. Postal Service when she got a phone call from the FDNY counseling unit in January 2002.

“I went for an interview, and when I walked out I had the job,” Matthews said. “I was the clinical supervisor of the unit on Long Island. They basically didn’t tell us what to do. They gave us a budget, and they gave us a little house on the Suffolk Community College/Brentwood Campus. We set up the kitchen to look like a firehouse kitchen. Coffee was always available, and there was a lot of food.

“There were so many people coming through the door, we didn’t get to eat. I had two pagers. I was working seven days a week. But it wasn’t just me. It was me and my co-workers. It was a team effort.”

One group she counseled were widows.

“These were all very young women,” Matthews said. “A lot of them were pregnant or had babies. When you are that young and you are a widow, your future is done, your dreams are shot. A lot of them were in shock. How do you go on?”

And she counseled rescue workers, people haunted by what they had seen and by lost comrades.

“Sometimes I would sit there as composed as I could be. Just hold the space,” she said. “That was a challenge. I had to listen to the stories of people who saw people jumping out of buildings. What that sounded like.”

But as harrowing as those stories were, Matthews said they did not really claw at her core until the spring of 2002 when she visited the pile or the pit, the rubble left behind when the Twin Towers fell.

“We were watching men digging, shoveling, sorting through stuff, looking for remains,” Matthews said. “It’s different when someone is telling you something. But when you are there, it’s a visceral experience. You get emotional.”

An honor to help

Geri Lynn and Michael returned to Albuquerque in 2005 and bought a house in the Northeast Heights. For the last 10 years she has been making documentary films on topics such as rape in the military, the role of trees in our world and contaminated water.

But she stays in touch with some of the firefighters and widows she met in New York in the years just after 9/11.

“It was an honor to have had this experience, to have supported the firefighters, the police and family members during this historic trauma,” she said. “It was the toughest job I ever had, but I couldn’t wait to get to work. I loved the people.”

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