By CHARLOTTE VALDIVIA
For the Hood River News
This is the second of a two-part account by Charlotte Valdivia of Mt. Hood, who spent two weeks in New York City as an American Red Cross volunteer, stocking and delivering supplies to support rescue efforts at Ground Zero following the Sept. 11 attacks. The hours were long and the work emotionally-draining.
Valdivia saw that motorists entering Manhattan, including Red Cross workers, faced heavy security in the weeks following the attack.
"Going from the exit of the tunnel to ground zero we were stopped at five or six checkpoints, with ID checks at each one. As we got closer to ground zero the streets became more deserted, and we found ourselves getting quieter and more apprehensive as we passed through," she wrote in part one on Wednesday.
But this is also a tale of compassion, humor, and gratitude.
As we made our way down the street that runs along the port all the way to ground zero, there were people standing in the dividers waving banners at us that had "THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT GOD BLESS YOU" printed on them, shouting "Thank You!" and waving. This was after midnight, and I found out, as I continued to make those runs at all hours of the night, that there are people there 24 hours a day doing this.
By then we could see the smoke from Ground Zero, and not much later we entered the third zone. The security check was lengthy there, and the lights from ground zero were very visible. My partner and I were very subdued by then.
As the site of the towers became visible we started passing wrecked vehicles lined up and down both sides of the street, the vehicles that had been pulled out of the wreckage already. It was an unbelievable sight, probably 50-60 of them, burnt and crushed to the ground. I recognized many fire trucks, delivery trucks, tankers, many cars.
I was, as anyone who saw that sight, sickened. I really couldn't process what I was seeing, and as we drove up to the edge of ground zero, it all took on the appearance of a movie set. The lights made the area as bright as daylight, with the night and the stars above.
We were in a line of vehicles of every kind: fire trucks bringing in firefighters or waiting to take them back, flatbed hauling machinery and equipment; huge dump trucks; delivery trucks, electric and other utility trucks, and ambulances. Sandwiched in between were the New York state, NYC and New Jersey police cars and other cars carrying officials from all the different departments. We were halted in a long line there, waiting for outgoing vehicles to clear the area so we could get in.
I got out of my truck and stood there looking from all the way on the left to all the way on the right, and I couldn't take it all in. It looked like I imagined a disaster movie set might look, and I could not imagine that what I was seeing was reality. There were massive cranes everywhere (I never knew cranes that big existed), and all variety of machinery operating, loud generators, all the vehicles, and people!
Thousands of people working, standing in groups, walking, running, talking, shouting. There were uniformed police from so many different departments, firemen and women in their bunkers and helmets, nurses and Red Cross personnel, doctors, workers of every kind, National Guard, FBI and other government officials in their suits that looked so out of place there.
Everywhere the ground was wet from the spray trucks trying to keep the dust down, and dirty and debris-littered. The dust was so thick my eyes immediately started burning and itching, and the haze of smoke made everything look even more surreal. And towering over all of that was what was left of the World Trade Center and all the other damaged buildings and debris, surrounded by tall, clean glass-windowed buildings that were untouched by the attack.
After a few minutes I got back in my truck, not able to continue looking. I felt somehow off-kilter, disoriented, and a feeling of extreme tiredness came over me, a reaction to emotional overload.
It took about 30 minutes to get our truck up to the front of the Red Cross respite center, which was housed in a college building about a block from the beginning of the debris pile. I backed up to the ramp behind another truck that was getting ready to unload and got out. As I stood there, a steady stream of people passed me as they went into the respite center, and I could see the exhaustion on their faces, the slump of their shoulders. Many, many of these people, the firefighters, police and other workers, would look up at me with a tired smile and say "Thanks for being here." Some would squeeze my shoulder, some would ask where I was from, some would say, "how you doing tonight?"
I was overcome with the kindness and the gratitude these people, so physically and emotionally drained, expressed. That was when it ceased to feel like a movie set and became reality for me.
While I waited for my turn to unload, I went in to the respite center for a soft drink, and stayed long enough to fully appreciate what was happening there. The first thing I saw was a large dining room, probably 80 round tables, with fresh flowers and a teddy bear on each one. Many people were eating, some visiting or just sitting by themselves. I went on to the kitchen, where I learned from a Red Cross volunteer that they were serving 22,000 meals every 24 hours there. Breakfast, lunch and dinner for the day crews, and again for the night crews. A week later a second respite center was opened on the other side of Ground Zero to handle the overflow.
I wandered into the next room, a large meeting hall set up with easy chairs, couches, lounges, televisions, and more round tables and flowers and teddy bears. People were resting, relaxing, visiting, some laughing, some somber, some just sitting with their eyes closed.
A mass care volunteer offered to take me on a tour upstairs, where the sleeping area was. The college classrooms up there had been turned into dorms, with about eight beds per room. Each bed was expertly made, and a teddy bear and a flowered bag containing toiletries and snacks sat on each pillow. I don't know how many dorm rooms there were, many of them were occupied so I didn't go into them all. There was another room up there with comfortable furniture and television, again in full use.
Back downstairs I visited the supply room, where the workers could come in any time and pick up new boots, jeans, shirts, sweatshirts, socks, underwear and gloves as their cloths became too wet and dirty to work in. There was no checking in or out, no papers to fill out, the only signs there said "This is a gift from the American people". I learned that the lifetime of a pair of heavy-duty work boots out in that wet and still smoldering pile of debris was five days, and sweatshirts were changed as often as three times a day. The supply room also furnished masks to filter out some of the dust and smoke, and eye drops, lotions, and any and all supplies that would make it a little more bearable to go back out into that mountain of sadness and despair.
Outside the main doors of the respite center were a bank of pay telephones, about 10 of them, set up for free long distance and local calls, available for anyone to use anytime. Each call could last up to five minutes, to give everyone a chance to use them. They were all in use right then, families getting a brief call at midnight from their husband, wife, son or daughter, to let them know they were okay, or maybe to assure themselves that a real and better world existed outside of ground zero.
When my truck came up for unloading a crew of volunteers took over that job, and I relieved the volunteer that was standing at the bottom of the ramp that led up to the respite center. Hand-held spray attachments dangled from a long sink along the ramp, and we were asking those that came in to the respite center to please rinse the debris from the bottom of their boots before going in. One young firefighter, with a wonderful Brooklyn accent, grinned and said, "You want me to do what?" I told him, "Remember how your Momma, when you were a boy, would tell you to clean your shoes off before you came in and tracked up the house? Just pretend I'm your Momma." He laughed, and said I was right, that was just how his Momma sounded! He came back out a few minutes later with a drink and snacks, and a teddy bear tucked under his arm. He stopped and hugged me, and stuck the teddy bear in my arms, thanking me, and telling me they really appreciated us being there for them. I tried to tell him how much we appreciated him being there, but it was difficult to speak.
I was pretty emotionally drained by the time we left there that night, but I was uplifted, too. In the midst of what the worst in people had done, I was surrounded by the best in people, and that far outweighed the other.