September 11 Digital Archive: XML Document

Story:Tuesday, September 11th was the scheduled monthly faculty meeting for Empire State College's Hudson Valley Center at the Middletown office. News of the first plane crash into the WTC came as faculty were arriving and we were immediately thrown into a state of shock, confusion, alarm, and fear for others who might be working close to the site. (My own spouse was in Arlinton VA, just a few miles from the Pentagon, and heard the thunder of that hit from his office, as I later learned). We made efforts to locate a radio and turned to Internet news sites in an effort to understand what was happening. While much remained unknown, clearly we could not proceed with business as usual, and we began dispersing.

Having moved ahead of my spouse to New York, I was particularly at loose ends, without the comfort of family.

Response:After watching the images on TV for awhile, I could no longer remain in my apartment, and I made my way to the local Red Cross program in Goshen, where lists of medical and mental health volunteers and supplies were being assembled. I was told that two buses would leave later in the afternoon for the Red Cross Headquarters in NYC, so I went home to throw a few things into a bag and pick up my social work and mental health Red Cross training credentials.

Two school buses filled with nurses, EMT's, and others left for NYC shortly before 6 PM. One nurse handed me some latex gloves. We all wore Red Cross ID's on cords around our necks, which were checked against our drivers licenses at different checkpoints along the one hour ride. As we neared the George Washington bridge, police came aboard our bus armed with shotguns for another check. People were streaming on foot across the Bridge from Manhattan to New Jersey, while only a few vehicles were allowed to go from New Jersey into the City. Against the slanting rays of the descending sun, I looked south from the Bridge and saw, and smelled, vast billows of dark gray smoke rising from lower Manhattan. The smell is what has stayed with me.

Confusion reigned at Red Cross headquarters, where every call for personnel was quickly filled by volunteers who kept coming and coming. Though I had been taught that the first 48 hours of any disaster are particularly chaotic until assessments can determine what is needed and where, the sheer magnitude of the WTC attack overwhelmed any previously existing processes or systems for response. I remember mobs of people rushing forward every time a request was put forth, such as for hotline duty, or ERV trips to Ground Zero. I was assigned along with four other mental health volunteers to go to Curtis High School on Staten Island where teens from several lower Manhattan high schools had been evacuated earlier on ferries.

It took us several hours to arrive, far longer than usual, because the car directions had us crossing into Brooklyn through the Battery Tunnel, and all tunnels had been closed. We made a number of U-turns when police blockades prevented us from proceeding, and we got lost in Brooklyn at one point. Finally, we were allowed to cross the Verranzano Bridge to Staten Island after convincing NYPD officers that we were on a Red Cross assignment. One officer told us "take care" and "God bless."

Arriving late at the high school, most of the students were asleep on makeshift pallets, the girls in the cafeteria, the boys in the gym. The following morning, after a sleepless night, we made our way among the youngsters, talking of their experience on the previous day, the images in their minds, their fears. One handsome young man, a recent arrival from the Congo, told me that his family had "come to America to be safe."

By midday, after every student's family members were contacted, we all boarded buses and were escorted by police caravan-fashion along wide open, traffic-less avenues back into the City where the teens were dropped at strategic points close to their homes. The smell of fire and fumes filled an otherwise sunny, blue sky.

Affects:Though I have had many experiences, some critical, as a social worker, they have usually involved individual or family situations. I had never experienced a massive disaster, and I was not prepared for the struggle to maintain my own equilibrium that I experienced as I attempted to talk with the teens at Curtis High School. I was also not prepared for the chaotic scene at the NYC Red Cross headquarters. I know that everyone learned a good deal about major disaster efforts after 9/11.

Red Cross Volunteer:yes

Red Cross Employee:no

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