Comfort when words fail

MARYSVILLE — Days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Tim Serban walked with families through the rubble and debris at the World Trade Center site in New York City.

As a chaplain and volunteer for the national Red Cross spiritual-care response team, Serban has found that in times of extreme grief his job is not to preach but to be there when all words fail.

Serban is a presence — a person who is there for families in the midst of their suffering and there for rescue workers struggling with the emotional fallout of a disaster.

Volunteer work such as this isn’t a mere job, it’s a calling.

Serban, 43, of Marysville began working for the Red Cross in 1999 as part of a national spiritual care team intended to respond to major transportation accidents. The group’s first big test was the EgyptAir Flight 990 crash in the Atlantic Ocean, 60 miles south of Nantucket, Mass., of October that same year.

While the scope of his job has changed dramatically since Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, his work has remained essentially the same — spending time with families of those who died.

“In my experience, family of those who have died need to connect with the last place their loved ones last lived,” Serban said. “They need to reconnect, it’s hard to put words to.”

Snohomish County Red Cross spokesman Kris Krischano said Serban brings compassion and sincerity to the serious work he’s doing.

“The work he does, helping these people heal when they need help the most, would tax most people to the point of exhaustion. But Tim is one of those special people who goes above and beyond the call of duty,” Krischano said. “We can always count on his presence making a situation that much better.”

While comfort in times of grief is important, Serban has also had to take on more of a managerial role, one he used while responding to Hurricane Gustav when it made landfall along the Gulf coast in September.

He worked with 15 chaplains and sent them out in teams of two across the state. He was responsible for their well-being and safety, as well as his own.

“The same time my plane landed was when Gustav landed, it was my first experience with a hurricane,” Serban said. “Here I am, from Seattle, trying to support people in these shelters who have lost everything.”

At one point, Serban and 200 Red Cross staff were forced to hunker down as the hurricane passed over their shelter.

After the disaster, that’s when Serban makes time for self-support. It’s common practice for Serban and his team to take three months off between deployments.

Faith, family and friends make the adjustment — and the healing — easier.

“My faith has been a resource that I greatly value. I don’t rely on my personal strength. If I did, then I’d be tapped out in 10 minutes,” Serban said.

The emotional vulnerability is also the ability to speak with victims personally, in what he characterized as “being real.”

“I had a manager who said that you need to be real, or else the patients and family will keep you real,” he said. “I salute those people who have put themselves where others fear to tread. I’ll never take that for granted.”

Reporter Justin Arnold: 425-339-3432 or

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