Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11—Sharon Thompson

(The following is a narrative from the chapter's Director of Volunteer and Youth Services, Sharon Thompson who was part of relief efforts following the attacks on September 11th.)

In one sense, it is hard to believe that it has been 10 years since the horrific disaster of September 11th because I can close my eyes and be transformed back there in an instant.

September 11, 2001, began as a normal day of work, but within minutes of hearing about the planes striking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, I knew I would be deployed on disaster assignment.

In the early morning hours of September 13th, I boarded a private jet with three American Red Cross volunteers and the Captain of the USS Louisville and we took off for New York. A quick stop at Andrews Air Force Base to drop off the Naval Captain and we were airborne for an assignment that would change our lives.

My family had taken a vacation to New York several years before, and I knew that what I was about to see was not what my memory was. My first glimpse of the [World Trade Center] was one I will never forget—fire so intense that the flames were boiling and leaving a smoke plume as far as one could see. I was surprised that after 48 hours, the fire was still burning.

We set up one headquarters in Princeton, NJ, across the river from New York City, and began the task of trying to make contact with the families from Tower II and trying to get enough workers in to assist. In the first 48 hours on the ground, offices were set up, personnel came by any means they could, since no planes were flying, and a “village” was set up by the Port Authorities so the families could come to one location and meet with all the various agencies assembled to help them. Security was extremely tight and special badges were issued.

Initially, in the evenings, I would attend candle vigils showing support for the families and sharing in the hope of the world, that survivors would be rescued. As the hours ticked by, the sense of hope faded and the reality began to grip everyone that there would not be rescues and may not be any remains to recover.

I visited “ground zero” the next morning where we had set up a Respite Center, so workers could eat, shower, rest and contact home through computers. It was set up in the “Wall Street Journal” building, and that is where I felt the greatest impact of the tragedy.
Walking through the ashes, smelling the acrid air from the fires and seeing the destruction that had crippled a city and wounded a nation overwhelmed me with sadness and anger that one man, one group or one country could have done this to innocent people … who had simply gone to work that day.

A few days before I returned home, I visited Princeton University for a couple of hours. Quickly, I noticed that life was continuing on for the students; riding their bikes (there must have been 2,000 bikes), rushing to class, talking, laughing with friends. I even sat on a park bench and watched the induction of the new President or Chancellor of Princeton University with the stage filled with everyone in full regalia. I remember thinking ... life does go on.

My stay was 23 days and filled with numerous opportunities to help those in need ... a task I did not take lightly. I felt that I was the hand to hold, the one to listen or the one to stand in silence as a casket was wheeled to the front of a church … that I was representing not only the American Red Cross but the thousands of Americans whose hearts were broken from this tragedy.

Upon arriving in Louisville, I was greeted by my husband and oldest son, who I hugged a little longer being thankful I was home yet sad because so many people would not have a loved one to hug. As we drove to the hospital where our oldest granddaughter had just had her tonsils removed, I watched the hustle bustle of traffic and LIFE.

I have been asked what does this day mean … ten years later. I remember saying that history was written that day, and the children who lost parents or relatives would one day read about it in their history book. I hope that September 11, 2001, does not become simply a date in a history book but a memory of tragedy, sadness, hope and grief that gripped a nation and a Red Cross worker from Elizabethtown, KY.