Saturday, September 10, 2011
I will Never Forget: 9/11 in New York
The events of 9/11 will reign in my heart forever. Along with the rest of the nation, I sat in horror watching the televised events of that awful day. Although a volunteer, it didn’t occur to me that the American Red Cross would take an active role in the recovery process, but it soon became evident that New Yorkers in all walks of life were affected. Apartments within a huge radius were evacuated, jobs evaporated, life as New Yorkers knew it was horribly altered.
My first three weeks after 9/11 were spent in Washington, D.C. helping to set up a national American Red Cross call center. Those affected needed one central place where they could inquire about loved ones, where to find temporary housing, get mental or spiritual help; others needed to know where to go to give blood, volunteer help, donate money.
Soon after Washington, D.C., I was deployed to New York and my life was changed forever. I was assigned to Pier 94, a huge FEMA facility in Manhattan that coordinated more than 100 agencies under one roof. It was a one-stop shop where people could come for financial and emotional assistance.
Every assistance agency imaginable was represented at Pier 94: New York Police and Fire Departments, Salvation Army, housing authority, child welfare, unemployment, missing persons, insurance companies. The American Red Cross assisted people who lost family members, they helped families through financial crises that occurred as a result of the bombing, they set up respite centers where relief workers could rehydrate and relax.
Pier 94 was a somber place. We were aware at all times how affected these people were on so many levels. No cameras were allowed. Confidentiality and privacy were high priorities.
The Red Cross had a huge team of Mental Health workers available to the public, first responders and aid workers, as well as a large contingency of chaplains who circulated around the vast building. We even provided child care, staffed by church groups, so that people could talk to agencies without the distraction of small children. My personal responsibility was to give financial assistance to people who suddenly couldn’t pay their bills, they had been thrown in financial chaos.
Even dog clubs organized to give comfort. Throughout the day, well-behaved dogs were guided through crowds, stopping when a child needed to bury his head in comforting fur, or when an adult, overcome by grief, just needed to look into soft eyes and cry. It was obvious to me that the dogs sensed profound sadness, a deep melancholy that prevailed on Pier 94. I marveled at these dogs and their gracious owners who spent hours circulating through the crowds bringing calming comfort.
Local restaurants donated their services and food, preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner for all those who served. It was my pleasure to share meals with people of all represented agencies. I had never spent time in New York, and talking with police, fire fighters, and those of other agencies was an eye-opening experience for me. I found New Yorkers warm and friendly, and so appreciative of people who were there to help.
When I had a few minutes, one of my favorite places to visit on Pier 94 was a long corridor decorated with gifts from the people of Oklahoma City who had suffered from the bombing in 1995. Flowers, dozens of teddy bears, pictures, notes from adults and children, it was an outpouring of love that brought tears to my eyes every time I visited that section of the building.
New York’s Thanksgiving parade had a special meaning that year. Sure, we experienced the relief of laughter–you have to laugh at clowns’ antics. There was pride, too, when school bands marched by playing patriotic tunes, their uniforms spotless, their instruments polished to perfection. But when the NYFD float came by with our tattered American flag we came to attention, saluting or putting hands over hearts. The fire fighters who carried that flag carried it with pride, and yes, defiance.
I continue to have mixed feelings about 9/11: horror that such a tragedy could happen on US soil, admiration for the strength and bravery New Yorkers showed, and pride in the American people for stepping forward to help. I am proud to have had a small part in the healing process after the worst day in America’s history.