I know it’s a day late, but still remembering 9/11/01…I was working at the American Red Cross Loudoun County Chapter as the Emergency Services Director. I oversaw 3 programs – Disaster Services, Armed Forces Emergency Services, International Services, and depending on the day, sometimes the vehicle donation program, sometimes assisting w/coordination of Health & Safety, etc., since I was the only one who spoke Spanish.
I decided to go in early that day to catch up on some work, so I didn’t have a chance to watch/listen to the news. Soon after I arrived, one of our dedicated volunteers who came in daily to answer phones/do admin. work called and told me that a plane had crashed and to turn on the TV. So, I did, and I couldn’t believe my eyes – at first I thought maybe it was an accident, then I immediately knew it was a terrorist attack when the second plane hit. As I watched in horror, the adrenaline soon kicked in and I recalled vividly all my Red Cross training in Disaster and WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction), but still, I hesitated on what action to take first – “there is so much to do and so many people to contact, and my God, how many people affected?,” I thought to myself and felt so alone. Soon enough, the phone started ringing off the hook, every 7 seconds to be more exact. Most of the public wanted to donate blood, and we didn’t know how to direct them…henceforth I no longer felt alone – on the contrary, I was surrounded by all these caring souls who felt helpless.
I did not return home until after midnight that night (technically Sept. 12th) as we were all busy bees that fateful day. What was on my mind in the middle of the madness was my husband and whether or not he was OK as he was working in DC at the time. Phone lines were jammed and cell phones were not working – I was eternally grateful for the two-way pager, which I used to communicate w/colleagues. I finally got through to my husband after midnight when I got home (thank God for our landline phone) – he decided to stay at the office so he could avoid the traffic, who could blame him : /
When I arrived home, our dog (10-month old puppy at the time) had chewed through the wooden gate in the kitchen, traipsed around the entire house, spread garbage all over the house (toilet paper & miscellaneous items), made messes here and there, and was laying in our bed. It didn’t help that she had been “fixed” the day before on Sept. 10th! Understandably, with the non-stop nature of that day, I had completely forgotten about anything household-related, including the dog. There were a barrage of messages on our answering machine from family across the country worried about how we were doing, so I called them in the middle of the night to quell their fears.
Little did I know what lied ahead in staffing Dulles airport with the Disaster Mental Health workers who we had trained a few months prior and managing the casework for the victims families. Those volunteers were our saving grace…along w/the 100+ spontaneous volunteers who came through our doors to do anything in their power to support the operation. Young, middle-aged, and elderly came in droves – it was the most emotional, frustrating, frightening, yet rewarding experiences of my life. One of the volunteers was kind to offer to take in our dog and cared for her since she had been neutered and was not allowed to run/jump – not to mention I couldn’t leave her alone at home due to the long hours! And all the businesses that came forth – it truly became a community-wide effort…
There is one case in particular that I will never forget – a woman who had relocated from NYC to Loudoun County several months after 9-11. She called us and briefly told me how she ended up here, so we made an appt. and she came in for a meeting with me. Behind closed doors, she told me about how she lived in an apt. building which was in close proximity to the WTC & Twin Towers. She described how she saw body parts fall from the sky and all the soot, etc. cover their building. She proceeded to tell me about evacuation procedures and many other details I can’t remember since it’s been so long.
I had heard many stories throughout my long Red Cross career, including Holocaust survivors accounts, but never like this; nothing that brought it so close to home for me. A woman, who could have been me, experiencing such atrocities in my lifetime, not far from my own abode. She mentioned that she would be writing a book, but I don’t remember her name or if it was ever published. I just know, we helped in some tiny way – by listening to her story and being there when she needed it most. That changed my entire persective, and after all the pain, suffering, anger, frustration that I, the victims families, and the public experienced/felt, that one story & helping her was like a catharsis for me.
I realized that despite the tragedy that befuddled us, we made a difference for at least one. In reality, I knew there were dozens of other families, hundreds of volunteers, colleagues, and people in the community to whom we lent a hand, whether it be providing financial compensation for their loss, a way to give back, a debriefing to make sure Red Cross workers could deal w/PTSD, or allowing school children to raise money for the cause. Regardless of all the politics that occurred – that day, and in the days, weeks, and months that followed, we all came together as a community, young/old, police, fire, Mental Health professionals, EMS personnel, and American Red Cross staff to meet the needs as best we knew how.
That is what happened to me – a transformative role and experience in my life. Now to reflect on how others reacted, what they encountered, and how they felt…