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'Ground Zero' shakes everyone, HR responders say

Even from a distance of 3,000 miles, the horror of Sept. 11 and its aftermath seems way too close for most of us in our quiet valley across the country from where terrorists struck.

But for a few from Hood River, what that day wrought has become more than endless TV images and radio commentaries. They've been there. They've seen it, smelled it, heard it, and it has changed them.

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One of those is Howard Lamley. He left for New York a week after the terrorist attacks to aid in the relief efforts as a volunteer crisis responder with the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA). His team of seven responders from around Oregon was based in Liberty Park, N.J., across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan where, for the whole eight days they were there, they could see the smoke rise from the heap of ash and twisted metal and pulverized concrete that was once the World Trade Center.

"The only way I can describe it is that the earth cracked and hell walked out," Lamley said. He and his team were responsible for setting up a family assistance center for relatives of victims of the World Trade Center attack. Their goal was to provide one centralized location for family members to go to take care of the unthinkable -- from insurance claims to banking to providing DNA samples that would help to identify loved ones.

"A lot of people don't realize the impact this had on New Jersey," Lamley said. He said he learned of a nearby parking lot spanning acres that normally emptied out every night as commuters arrived via trains to claim their cars and drive home. The lot had remained full of cars since Sept. 11.

Lamley, a mental health clinician with the Mid-Columbia Center for Living assigned to NORCOR, served as team leader for his NOVA group. Along with working at the family assistance center in New Jersey, he was called on to visit a police precinct in Manhattan that lost 17 of its officers.

"This has totally changed the way people perceive things," he said. "People are not feeling safe."

In his work, Lamley found himself in lower Manhattan several times. Once, a convoy of police cars drove past, blaring horns and flashing lights. It soon became clear they were escorting several busloads of rescue workers who were being taken elsewhere for a break from Ground Zero.

"Everyone on the streets stopped and started clapping and throwing flowers," said Lamley, who looked at the faces of the workers through the bus windows as they went by. "It was like the prisoners coming out of Dachau," he said. "The life was just drained out of their faces."

Everything for blocks and blocks was caked with dust, Lamley said. And everywhere -- even 30 and 40 blocks away -- there was a "burnt electric" smell.

The assistance center he helped establish continues to aid New Jerseyites, and Lamley may go back in the next few months for another stint. "The people there are so grateful for the help," he said. "They'd say, `You're here from Oregon? Wow!'"

Lamley said his relief work in New York and New Jersey was one of the most "intense" things he's ever done.

"It changes your perspective on things," he said. "It's caused me to look at my life and say, `Am I contributing as much as I can? Am I making a difference?'"

He said being able to contribute to the relief effort was a privilege. "I was honored -- and humbled at the same time because of the magnitude of the job," he said. "And there's so much more left."

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Susan Hoffman also went.

A nurse who lives in Mosier, Hoffman was the first of several Red Cross volunteers from the Hood River chapter to be dispatched to New York. She left for her assignment just three days after the attacks.

Hoffman, an eight-year veteran of Red Cross relief efforts both in the U.S. and abroad, was assigned the night shift at relief operation headquarters in Brooklyn. There, she was responsible for coordinating the nurses in nearly 20 Red Cross "service centers" in lower Manhattan and the surrounding area.

Hoffman stayed at a Manhattan hotel about two-and-a-half miles from Ground Zero, and would drive or take the subway to the Brooklyn headquarters -- and around the city in her few hours of down-time between 12-plus hour shifts.

"I was impressed that, for New York being a big, big city, it was small," said Hoffman, adding that nearly everyone she talked to had a personal connection with a victim of the attack. "You could talk to anyone on a street corner and everyone was affected. I thought, `Well, this is like Hood River'."

Like Lamley, Hoffman, too, was struck by the smell permeating lower Manhattan.

"The best thing I can liken it to is the smell of thousands of computers burning," she said. "And it probably was."

Amid all the devastation, Hoffman was encouraged by the number of local Red Cross volunteers working around the clock. "I've never seen the extent of local volunteers that I saw in New York," she said. The Red Cross used many of them as courier drivers. "None of us wanted to drive," she said.

Hoffman, who has been at the heart of relief efforts from the Los Angeles earthquake to the Oklahoma tornados to the war in Kosovo, said the World Trade Center attack was unique for more than the obvious reasons.

"By actual area, it wasn't as large," she said. "But this was bigger, by far, in terms of the number of people involved. It was just massive."

During her three weeks there, Hoffman said the city was "much quieter" than she remembered it from previous visits. "People are on edge," she said. And she doesn't see that ending any time soon.

"We're still working with people from the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995," she said. "I foresee this going on for at least that long."

Hoffman said her experience in disaster relief helped steel her for the devastation she found in New York, but she's worried about other relief workers with less experience.

"I've been fortunate -- or unfortunate as the case may be -- to have had a lot of different experiences," she said. "But I know a lot of people are going to have a hard time with this."

Even for her, this assignment was harder than usual. "I think it might have been easier to have stayed than to come home and go back," she said -- something she will likely be asked to do by December. "But I think I'll be ready. Seeing how things have progressed in New York will be good."

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