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Kerr-McGee Brings In Counseling Firm To Help Workers Cope After Bombing

May 4, 1995

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Kerr-McGee Corp. has embraced a new business priority as it works to help its employees recover from the deadliest domestic terror attack in U.S. history: the hug.

The energy company’s 30-story headquarters sit only two blocks from the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City, where the April 19 bombing claimed more than 140 lives.

Since the bombing, Kerr-McGee has spent many hours and tens of thousands of dollars offering counseling and other services to help employees cope.

``You can’t just tell people to go back to work. We have to address the human component first,″ said Bruce Blythe, president and chief executive officer of Atlanta-based Crisis Manangement International Inc., the company Kerr-McGee turned to for help.

In the aftermath of the attack, the company’s first priority became disseminating information.

``The first two or three days back, the issue was not trying to get work done. The issue was trying to help people get comfortable,″ said Don Schiesz, Kerr-McGee’s vice president for safety and environmental affairs. ``Some of them still are not.″

With CMI’s help, management set up a command center and a phone tree, established a toll-free number to an Atlanta answering service and began taping updated messages twice a day.

Eighteen counselors also came to Oklahoma City from CMI’s network of subcontractors spanning 68 cities and several foreign countries. The licensed mental health professionals specialize in crisis and disaster psychology.

The Kerr-McGee building, just across the street from the area still cordoned off by authorities, reopened for work on the Monday after the bombing. That was a critical time because workers tend to relive their experience when they return, Blythe said.

``The last time they were there they were rushing out, shocked, dazed, confused,″ he said.

In the chaos that followed the explosion, many Kerr-McGee employees left their offices. The rest were evacuated a short time later after officials found what was thought to be a second bomb.

To try to help workers feel safe on the day they returned to work, extra security was on hand and all employees entered through one main door.

There, they were greeted with hugs and handshakes by senior management and given one of the hand-tied ribbons that have come to symbolize the attack, as well as an information sheet. Counselors also were waiting nearby.

``We could see the tension on their faces, and some of them came in crying,″ Schiesz said.

``There was a lot of hugging going on,″ Kerr-McGee spokesman Dow Dozier said. ``It was just a really helpful scene, I think.″

That morning, Kerr-McGee filled its auditorium for two 1 1/2-hour employee meetings led by chairman and chief executive officer Frank McPherson. Among other things, workers were told about colleagues who’d lost relatives in the blast and allowed to ask questions.

Throughout the next two days, employees in groups of 20 were brought in for counseling sessions lasting two hours or more. Workers were encouraged to vent their feelings and told that they are experiencing normal traumatic stress that will resolve with time.

``Employees really support each other in these things and the cohesion of the group starts coming back together,″ Blythe said. Kerr-McGee officials said it was too soon to interview employees.

Problems included grief, anger, depression, fatigue, nightmares, survivor guilt, trouble eating and difficulty concentrating, Blythe said.

Counselors followed up individually with those having a harder time. The last counselor left Oklahoma on Monday, but CMI is still following up by phone and will do a questionnaire in two weeks to identify those who need more help.

Throughout, Kerr-McGee officials said they worked to show their concern for employees, which Blythe said boosts worker morale.

This type of emphasis is on the rise in corporate America, said Robert Grupe, an Oklahoma State University professor and business management consultant.

``I think there’s more of a sensitivity to ... the fact that employees’ attitudes and feelings do play a critical part in the long-term productivity of the company,″ said Grupe, who will hold a free workshop on coping with workplace trauma Monday in Oklahoma City.

Mishandling such a crisis could result in angry, resentful employees with more traumatic stress and higher medical costs, Blythe said.

Lessons learned by Kerr-McGee officials include having better access to employee telephone numbers and addresses. But they realize companies can’t always prepare for a day when directions to their corporate parking lot include, ``Turn left at the Humvee.″

The kind of post-crisis intervention pioneered by emergency workers and sold by CMI is now becoming a corporate staple, Blythe said.

CMI, a privately held company founded in 1988, now has more than $1 million in annual revenue and also consults with companies on threats of violence.

``That is the standard of care. The police know it, the firemen know it, the emergency medical technicians know it, and now the corporations know it. It has evolved to that point,″ he said.

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