A Volunteer's Perspective On The Anniversary of 9/11

Lesli Hill
Contributing Writer
As the 9/11 anniversary approaches each year, I intentionally take time to remember and reflect on that tragic event in our history. It is important for all of us to do that in ways that are meaningful and respectful. My perspective of 9/11 was forged when I was sent to New York City as a National Disaster Response Volunteer ten days after the attack. It remains one of the most life-changing experiences of my 68 years.
There are some interesting behind-the-scenes things that I witnessed that haven’t been widely reported. I share it as a story of good in the shadow of evil, of triumph in the face of terror, and joy rising from the ashes of despair. It is one we can all look to for inspiration.
My dear friend Linda Burditt and I had a habit of dragging each other into projects and when I decided to get my Red Cross training shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, I convinced her to enlist as well. We worked floods, tornadoes and fires together, but those experiences did not adequately prepare us for work at Ground Zero. As Linda and I flew out of Kansas City very early one morning. We were excited, yet scared to death. Just getting on a plane so soon after the attacks was unnerving. We took each others hand and prayed as our plane lifted into the air.
We arrived in NYC and we were instructed to get to Brooklyn where the Red Cross was coordinating the volunteers. There was no one to greet and guide us. We were on our own to make our way through the city. The Brooklyn center was a chaotic scene as hundreds of people from all over the country showed up for processing with no idea what to expect. Linda and I specialized in Mass Care, which is responsible for feeding and sheltering victims. It was a physically demanding job, but highly rewarding as we were able to interact closely with the victims and witness the slow movement to recovery. We were also trained ERV drivers. ERVs are the vehicles that look like ambulances that show up at disaster sites. They are equipped to carry large containers of food, emergency supply kits, bottled water and cleaning supplies for disaster victims.
Checking in was a long process for such a massive undertaking. The last orientation of the tedious day was Mass Care where we would get our assignments. We were told that most volunteers would not be assigned to Ground Zero but we were asked if there were any trained ERV drivers in the group. I raised my hand without thinking then Linda quickly pushed it down.
She didn’t want to be driving an ERV around New York City. On second thought, neither did I.
But, it was too late as we were shuttled off to another room to be assigned to an ERV at
Ground Zero for the 10 pm to 10:00 am shift. We were given our housing information and told to report for duty the following night.
We found our way to the downtown subway, but stations were closed and we had to get out and walk blocks to Ground Zero. As we emerged from the subway I was struck by the fact that we were walking into history. All of the store fronts were thickly coated in white ash, even windows of stores. I remember passing an expensive children’s clothing boutique with beautiful party dresses and dolls coated with debris. It felt like a horror movie, except this horror was not pretend. The smell was overwhelming.
We followed lights on an enormous American Flag draped on the side of the of a building. I was surprised by how loud the site was with dump trucks hauling away pieces of the World
Trade Center load by load. I looked into the night sky that was brightly illuminated from the ground to see rubble that seemed to stretch up to eternity.
Service Center 1 was located in St. Johns University, just blocks from Ground Zero. It was a bustling 24 hour feeding and respite center for the thousands of local first responders and those who came from across the nation. It was the first of a kind for the Red Cross, whose mission is to help survivors of disasters, except in this place there were no survivors. Inside its doors was a small city of people from all walks of life, dong what needed to be done while not knowing exactly what that was.
Ground Zero rescue efforts extended around the clock and so did disaster services. Service
Center 1 had a large cafeteria, an enormous supply room, a relaxation area we called the
Oasis, sleeping rooms, massage rooms, a first aid station, even veterinarians who cared for the rescue dogs. There were banks of phones set up for the responders to call family free of charge, charging stations for communication devices and an area staffed with clergy. Kohler brought in a semi truck with shower facilities. La-Z-Boy donated 30 or so recliners that were positioned around the Oasis in front of TVs. The Oasis had video games and reading materials.
We kept it supplied with snacks and beverages. I was touched by seeing big strong firefighters dressed in their bulky uniforms sound asleep in a recliner with stuffed animals that had been donated tucked under their chins.
The supply room was more like a small store. It had hundreds of new pairs of heavy work boots. The pile was very hot because of fires above and below ground. The soles of the boots just melted off and were exchanged for new ones frequently. There were asbestos suits stacked innocently next to underwear and shaving supplies. Every single thing was donated.
Thousands of letters and drawings from children came into the center every day. We wold rotate them through the dining room. I cant begin to describe the joy that these cards brought to everyone there.
In the first few weeks, Service Center 1 fed more than 25,000 meals every day. We served dinner until about 4:00 am then switched to breakfast mode. The food was prepared off site.
As ERV drivers, Linda and I made countless trips out of Ground Zero to the Tribeca area to load up the heavy containers of food. As we would drive up to our loading area, the ERV lights would show rats sitting top of the containers, then we would have to climb up the ladder of a refrigerated semi and bring down cases of milk. I still cant believe Linda and I managed to do this by ourselves. Our first trip out was a bit scary. We had no idea where we were going. We were given a map torn out of a phone book and the address on Duane street. There were no GPS locating devices available with such disruption of cell towers, but there were security police stationed at every intersection where you had to show Ground Zero credentials so we thought there were people who could give us directions along the way. We quickly realized that those police had come in from across the country to help and they were just as lost as we were. The first night, we drove around NYC at 4:00 am, lost in driving rain with a driver-side window that would not go up. We laughed thinking about what Tom and Larry would be thinking if they could see us.
When we weren’t hauling food, we washed dishes, emptied trash, visited with the first responders, mopped floors, served food, the tasks were endless. I don’t know how we were able to find the strength to get through those nights. I went days without sleep as my body tried to adjust to sleeping during the day. It never did. I lost 15 pounds in the first two weeks. I just could not eat any prepared food after a few nights of seeing those red eyed rats perched on the cambros so I subsisted on instant oatmeal.
The only time the relentless activity of Ground Zero stopped was when bodies were found.
Each one was treated with such respect and dignity. The silence was truly reverential. An ambulance was called, a priest delivered last rights and everything paused as the lives were honored and their sacrifice witnessed. One night as we walked into the area, 13 ambulances were lined up. We knew this night would be a somber one.
In the middle of a long night I stood at the top of the wide stairs on the second floor of our center observing the activity below and it struck me that all of this was happening with only a few paid people on site. Volunteers came from big cities and small rural communities. There were New Yorkers who worked regular day jobs then volunteered all night. Some were wealthy upper East side elites. Others were poor and unemployed. Yet, here they stood, shoulder to shoulder, doing the hard work of surviving. I wondered if, in another time, that rich man stepped over the poor man on his way to his important work. Ground Zero was a great social equalizer. There just wasn’t any emotional room for egos and status.
As I put these memories into the context of today, I wonder if the political atmosphere of this time would even allow for the unselfish service that was on display there. Do you think that a democrat and republican senator would step in and carry a load of food together with no cameras there to make either one look important.? Would passionate pro and anti- immigration members of congress grab mops or empty trash side by side, not caring about who they served with, but who they served? Could left liberals and right conservatives put down their angry speech long enough to realize that politics and agendas just don’t make this a better country or move us toward a more peaceful world?
We desperately need to go back to post 9/11 not to re-live the tragedy, but to remember the triumph. We don’t need politicians to do that for us. They won’t. They can’t. Instead, it starts with us, ordinary people who are willing to show up each day and just do what needs to be done with an attitude of respect for each other regardless of what they think, what they say, how they worship, how they look, or how they vote. We can honor this 9/11 anniversary by celebrating the powerful spirit of community that rose from Ground Zero despite the hate that triggered it. In doing this, we truly respect the lives of those who died and those who selflessly rushed in to serve.