By JoANNE VIVIANO
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
STRUTHERS -- After spending nearly two decades as a photojournalist, Steven Ilko turned in his camera and switched gears.
Now a professional counselor, the Boardman resident said he made the career change three years ago because he wanted more one-on-one contact with people. He wanted to make a difference.
Now he believes he has.
The 47-year-old volunteer with the Mahoning area chapter of the American Red Cross recently spent 15 days at a temporary Red Cross center in Falls Church, Va. From there, he handled telephone calls from those affected by the Sept. 11 tragedy.
"In a small way, I got to help with the worst disaster of ... my lifetime," said Ilko, who volunteered from Nov. 16 to Nov. 30.
Making the change: Ilko spent 18 years snapping photographs for the Warren Tribune Chronicle before earning a counseling degree at Youngstown State University and joining the staff as a licensed professional clinical counselor at the Eastern Behavioral Health Center on Youngstown-Poland Road.
"It feels very ironic, having been involved in great news events" as a photojournalist, Ilko said, sitting in his office at the health center. "I would not have been able to help, or be part of this experience, if I was still a photographer at the Warren Tribune" and not a counselor.
Ilko paused and sighed when asked about great challenges he faced as a volunteer.
"Two things," he said. "One would be the actual experience of trying to help somebody over the phone from hundreds of miles away. The other thing, I wonder what happened to all those people."
Ilko said it was difficult to be unable to see the faces of those he counseled and to be unable to give a hug or a pat on the back.
Close call: One man Ilko helped was working on the 81st floor of the second tower when the first tower was hit. As he evacuated, all he could hear was "Run, run. My God, run." As he ran for three blocks he was hit by debris. He turned around to see the tower fall.
The man called the Red Cross counselor during November to say, "I was OK for two months, but now, all of a sudden, things are starting to hit me."
Ilko helped the man realize he had gone through a lot that day and gave him links to New York City resources that could assist him further.
Another man who called said he had escaped the tower collapses but lost two co-workers. His company relocated in a building overlooking ground zero. The man went to the new office for the first time, looked out the window and lost it. He quit his job.
A third man, a disabled police officer, "told me stuff that's going to stay with me forever," Ilko said. The man had spent 59 days without a break searching through World Trade Center rubble with a rescue dog. He had found 74 bodies and 217 body parts. Once he grabbed a hand, hoping to pull out a person, but when he pulled, all that he retrieved was the hand. On his last day at the site, he found a firefighter's leg in its boot and spent the next eight hours trying, unsuccessfully, to find the firefighter's body.
The man had volunteered after the Oklahoma City bombing and after earthquakes in San Francisco. But this time when he returned home, he started falling apart. Besides the stress of his work, he discovered his wife had been laid off and they were going to get evicted. Ilko helped him find the financial resources he needed.
Breaking bad news: During Ilko's final three days at the site, he counseled a woman who lived near the Trade Center and needed to move because of respiratory health problems. She had worked as a physical therapist at the towers and lost $20,000 worth of equipment in the collapse. She had been promised Red Cross assistance, but policies changed and new guidelines meant she would receive nothing. Ilko had to break the news.
"It was the hardest thing I ever had to do," he said. "And she did not take the news well."
The woman became suicidal. Ilko counseled her and worked to get a New York Red Cross team to her home. He spent seven hours on the phone with the woman over a two-day span.
Besides Trade Center victims, Ilko counseled Red Cross workers who needed support to keep doing their jobs. And he also counseled many people who had fears of anthrax attacks.
Visited Pentagon: During his stay at the Virginia site, Ilko visited the Pentagon site of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He snapped photos of trees under which mourners had piled American flags, flowers, calendars. And he felt a sense of vulnerability as he saw concrete barriers and armed soldiers at every entrance.
"Just to see that there chokes you up," he said. "And the quiet of all the people standing there just kind of looking at each other with knowing faces, nobody saying anything to anyone else but everybody knowing what everyone is thinking."
Ilko also worked for The Vindicator in the late 1970s, winning first prize in the 28th annual Ohio News Photographers' Association contest, sports picture category.
During his one day off, Ilko spent some time taking care of his own emotional health. He spent hours walking through Arlington National Cemetery on that gloomy, misty autumn Saturday morning.
"I reflected on what I was doing, on what had happened," he said. "It grounded me very well."
Not changed: Ilko said he doesn't feel changed by the experience. He has seen disaster as a journalist, from tornadoes to snowstorms to car accidents, from riots to steel-mill takeovers.
"I've dealt with the suffering before, and as a counselor too," Ilko said. "In the end, I was glad to do my part. For some people I came into contact with, I made a difference."