Thomas DeMaria, 56

In 1996: Lived in Garden City, was disaster work psychologist

Now: Currently trauma expert who teaches graduate students about trauma; continues to do disaster work

Thomas DeMaria was no stranger to helping people through tragedy.

As a trained psychologist for three years and disaster worker for about six years, DeMaria helped people grieve sudden deaths of children, parents and teachers. But he hadn’t entered a large-scale disaster until the 1996 TWA Flight 800 crash.

“It was the first step into something that was so large,” DeMaria recalled 20 years later.

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DeMaria was 36 and married when he was called to help families the morning after the crash that killed 230 people. He remembers watching television the night before with his wife, when the program was interrupted by news of the crash.

As a disaster worker, DeMaria spent most of his time in the months after the crash working with other first responders to ensure families felt safe, connected and supported. Most people didn’t need mental health services, but instead distraction and connection to their friends, routine therapists and faith communities, DeMaria said.

Even though Flight 800 was a difficult disaster to manage because of its international scope, conspiracy theories and the time it took to recover all of the bodies, DeMaria explained that the tragedy taught him several lessons that helped his performance in one that followed, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings.

“The way I’ve been able to do this for 30 years is to pace myself, to go home, to be with my family, to have those moments and not live at a site,” DeMaria said. “You can’t necessarily be the person who saves everybody. You got to work as a team.”

DeMaria said he coped through a combination of self-care and working with a team that looked after him. He also learned about the courageous spirit of the families. DeMaria said he most remembers one of the anniversaries where families said they didn’t feel closure but appreciated having a space to memorialize and commemorate their loved ones.

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He continues disaster work at schools and shootings, and teaches doctoral students about assisting others in the aftermath of tragedies. DeMaria’s work with disasters also ties in with his faith as a Catholic, he said.

“I think that sometimes we feel fractured as a country,” DeMaria said. “I’m always impressed that people pull together and stay together, and our country supports people going through very difficult times.”