Over the past 15 years, I’ve learned that time doesn’t really heal wounds, it just helps you cope with them. At this time of reflection, I’m sharing with you the story I wrote about five weeks after returning home from Ground Zero 15 years ago. My emotional wounds were still raw as the lessons hadn’t had time to set in. Through it all, I remain convinced that we overcome hatred with love. When we don’t know what to do, get up and serve someone else. When the world seems hopeless, be the person to give hope. We can’t change the unspeakable tragedy of this day 15 years ago, but we can remember how our unity and charity made a difference. Here’s my story from 2001:
“On that day, 6,000 people did not die. On that day, 1 person died 6,000 times. We must understand this and all catastrophes in such a way, for big numbers only numb us to the true measure of mass murder.” —Rabbi Marc Gellman from the pulpit at the Yankee Stadium prayer service following the worst terrorist attack on American soil
I’m Anita Foster. I don’t expect you to know me as I’m just one of 45,000 Red Cross disaster relief workers who had the privilege of serving my organization and humanity for nearly a month in New York City following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Since I returned from New York, seeing sights I could not even imagine, I’ve been asked to share my experiences at community groups, on television, at corporations and with friends and family. Honestly, it’s been a struggle. The emotions and the right words seem to escape me. I would sit down at my keyboard night after night trying to paint pictures with words that would describe the scenes of utter terror. But the words failed me each time. There was so much destruction, so much pain, and so many stories.
As a writer for the Red Cross, I usually tell stories from the third person. I try to give you the big-picture perspective on how a particular disaster has impacted lives and how your help has made a difference. As I tried to apply that principle to this act of terrorism, I found it impossible. There is no “big picture”. There is only one picture at a time and they’re lined up on a wall with the word “MISSING” above each one.
The stories I am going to share with you are personal, and some are difficult to hear. They don’t represent what every Red Cross worker experienced while on assignment in New York, Washington DC, Pennsylvania or any other affected city. We were all, and will continue to be, affected in a variety of personal ways. The best I can hope for here is to share with you my journey and try to bring understanding as to the enormous amount of pain this act of terror has created, and how it has changed so many lives. There is pain for the families and friends of those lost, for those who lost their jobs and their sense of security. There is pain for the emergency workers at Ground Zero, for all relief workers and indeed, our entire nation. I suffered personal pains that I will share with you as well. As emergency workers, we are trained to be tough in difficult times. It was not possible in New York. We were all walking wounds open to the world.
September 11, 2001
My alarm went off at 6:30am signaling the beginning of another workday. The television was on in the background as I got ready for work and reviewed my calendar. I was about to walk out the door when a breaking news story was announced. A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City. I watched for a while and like many of you, I thought it was a terrible accident. The pilot must have had engine trouble or a heart attack. I stayed glued to the television for a few minutes, looked at my watch and decided to go ahead and go to work so as not to be late. I turned on the radio in the car and a reporter from New York was screaming, “The other tower is on fire! Huge orange flames are shooting into the sky and debris is falling from the building!” I could not believe what I was hearing. And I have to tell you honestly; an act of terrorism had not even crossed my mind. It wasn’t until the reporter said that America was being attacked that it even began to dawn on me what that meant. I drove down the highway in shock. I called a girlfriend of mine, who is originally from New York, and told her to turn the television on. Then the buildings fell. A plane crashed into the Pentagon. Another plummeted into a field in Pennsylvania. All planes were ordered grounded. News stations were reporting that hijackers had overtaken the planes and purposely caused these violent acts. I was actually shocked to hear that passengers were on those planes. I know that sounds crazy, but it never occurred to me that someone would crash planes into buildings with innocent passengers aboard. I kept thinking ‘who could do such a thing, and why? What has gone wrong in the world?’
At the Red Cross, we slept very little that night. Into the early morning hours and throughout the next day, we were establishing toll-free numbers for family members who were missing their loved ones in the affected cities. We were taking thousands of phone calls at the local chapter from all of you who wanted to help and we were holding blood drives.
Personally, this day, September 11, shattered all previous notions I had about our country and myself. Suddenly, we were no longer safe. In the blink of an eye, my world changed dramatically. I was working hard like every other Red Crosser, but I was just going through the motions.
The Call to Action
On September 13, the Red Cross was out at the Ballpark in Arlington raising funds for the relief operation in partnership with WBAP, KSCS and ESPN radio, as well as NBC5 and Tom Thumb. I arrived at the Ballpark at 5:00am not knowing what to expect. As the day wore on, I was overwhelmed by the generosity of people right here in our own community. Cars were wrapped around the Ballpark as people waited patiently to make their contributions and receive their red, white and blue antennae ribbons. Some just came by to talk. Others showed up to volunteer. It was truly amazing. It was also the first time I felt hopeful since the early morning hours of September 11.
Around 4:00 that afternoon, my pager went off. It was our national disaster coordinator. I knew that could only mean one thing. My heart pounded and my hand shook as I dialed her number. “Anita, you’re needed in New York. Make your travel plans and get on a plane as soon as possible.” Get on a plane. Travel to New York. Respond to a terrorist attack. Suddenly, I didn’t know if I was up to the challenge. I got in my car and drove to the chapter to get my instructions for travel. I cried the entire way from Arlington to Fort Worth. I was fearful of many things. The thought of boarding an aircraft so soon after such an unspeakable act of terror was overwhelming. Knowing that I was traveling to an area that thousands of people were fleeing was frightening. Thinking of all those families I had seen on the news holding up the posters of their missing both inspired me and terrified me. I knew I would not return the same person that I was before I left.
After a number of cancelled flights on Friday, I finally got one on Saturday. My flight left at 4:00pm from DFW to Philadelphia. From there, I took an Amtrak train into New York where I caught a taxicab to my hotel, which would be “home” for the next three weeks. I arrived in my hotel room at 1:00 in the morning.
It was dark outside when I reported for my first shift inside of Ground Zero. We went through three security checks before we could even get near the site. From a distance, I could see those sharp, jagged pinnacles protruding toward the sky. I knew it was World Trade One. I walked with my team through the streets of lower Manhattan with our respirator masks and extra Visine. With each step closer to the site, a tear came closer to escaping. Once the first one fell, it was impossible to stop the rest.
A firefighter friend told me before I left that I would have to operate in third person in order to get through this ordeal. I would have to detach myself from the reality. He was right. But in those first moments, it felt like being in an altered state. I could not breathe. I could not stand. I was overcome with raw human emotion which I can’t compare to anything else I’ve ever experienced in life. My instinct was to just wail as loudly as possible—to shout toward the heavens with unanswerable questions like, “WHY? And HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN.” But I couldn’t make a sound so I just prayed silently in front of the site.
There were no sounds at Ground Zero other than the machinery. No idle chatter. No words of inspiration. All around us, hundreds of workers were doing everything possible to find people alive. I couldn’t understand how they could emotionally handle looking at those buildings and know what was inside. I would look at the site, and then look away. It was too much to bear. Couldn’t they feel the spirits of the dead all around as I could? I knew in those first moments at Ground Zero that no one would be found alive. The ground I was standing on had become sacred. And then I remembered. They were working in third person. I would have to do the same. I began my shift and worked through the night.
The appearance of Ground Zero would change every day. Nightly news reports would detail how many tons of wreckage was removed on a particular day. The hope of finding survivors had faded by the end of the second week. Not only were there not any survivors expected, the fear was becoming that the bodies of the missing would not be recovered. Only a small number had been found, and only a few of those were in tact. When a body, or a body part, was recovered, the work at the scene would come to a halt. Everyone would stand silently or pray as firefighters draped the temporary casket in the American flag and prepared the remains for delivery to the morgue. In these rare instances, we all knew that a family would have a small sense of peace.
Family Assistance Center
Most of my time in New York was spent in between Ground Zero and the Family Assistance Center. I truly believed that Ground Zero would be the most horrifying site in New York City. But I was wrong. It was the Family Assistance Center. This is where the faces of the disaster would gather each day. In the first week, there was a pattern to the behavior of the group. Thousands would arrive each morning at 8:00am. They would check in through security, review the list of the injured who had been taken to area hospitals, and when their loved one didn’t show up there, they would check the coroners list. No new information. So they would make their way around the building. They would speak to city officials about the work at the site. They would beg for speed in removing the debris, certain their loved ones were waiting to be rescued. They would come by the Red Cross and pick up aspirin and teddy bears. Occasionally, they would visit the Red Cross Family Dining Area and try to eat. Hundreds of families sat silently, while others kneeled down in prayer asking for a miracle. Only a small number of families could be found at the Victim’s Crime Board, the place to officially list your loved one as missing. A smaller number visited the area where DNA samples were being collected. In that first week, the families were not ready to accept that their precious loved ones were not coming home. It was a sobering sight. So much suffering had never surrounded me. I truly felt trapped in between the best and the worst of humanity at exactly the same moment. It was like being on a tightrope. If you fell to the left, you were thrust into evil. If you fell to the right, you would land in the arms of a caring humanitarian. It was a balancing act for every family and every worker. There was so much suffering in the Assistance Center, and so much caring at the same time.
As the weeks went by, the process shifted. There were no longer lines to read the list of injured at area hospitals. The lines were long to give DNA samples and to register loved ones as missing at the Crime Victim’s Board. On many occasions, I would hear someone across the room just scream in agony. I knew that the body of their loved one had been identified.
The day the death certificates were issued was one of the hardest. Thousands of people were in the building that day. The faces looked the same—stoic. They were just going through the motions.
Celebrities came from everywhere to visit the families at the Assistance Center or shake hands with rescue workers at Ground Zero. Everyone felt compelled to reach out in whatever way they could to lend a comforting ear. Here are just a few of the rich and famous who visited the Family Assistance Center:
Bill, Hilary and Chelsea Clinton
The cast of The Sopranos
Paul O’Neil, New York Yankees
New York Jets Football team
There were hundreds more; these are just the ones I can remember. Some broke down and cried with the families, while others found themselves speechless. They were no different from the rest of us.
Outside the entrance to the Family Assistance Center was the wall of photos. The smiling faces of the missing halted me in my steps day after day. There were so many. Some showed a parent with a child on their lap. Some young girls were in their party dresses, while others were in graduation caps. Many wore the uniforms of the New York Fire and Police Departments. Missing brothers and sisters were pictured together, as well as husbands and wives. Row after row of never-ending photos. I worked at this center every day while I was in New York, which meant I had to pass by the wall numerous times. It was impossible not to stop and look. Each and every time, I had to stop and look. After a while, I knew the names of the people on the posters without even looking. I could tell you what company they worked for and what floor they were last known to be on. The wall was ever evolving. Flowers and candles would change daily and loved ones would write messages on the posters for the world to read. I broke down and cried in front of the wall many times. Everyone did.
Inside the center was the same wall of photos, however, this is where the families wrote their most heartfelt thoughts. It took days to read all the messages from loved ones. And the messages changed over time. You knew when reality was beginning to set in,evidenced by the “You are at peace” messages next to the photos. Lining the wall were thousands of Teddy Bears that were sent from Oklahoma City. Each had a special message or a drawing from a child attached. The words and colorful drawings of our nation’s youth could be seen throughout the center. Every square inch was covered with a picture, banner or card from someone in the world sending their heartfelt condolences.
I’ve already mentioned a number of celebrities who visited with the families. But these weren’t the people that will live in, or haunt, my memories. It’s the ones that you’ve never heard of that impacted me the most. Those that poured their hearts out and shared their pain so openly. Here are just a few of hundreds that I could share:
I met Blanche eight days after the attacks when she walked in the door at the Family Assistance Center. She just looked dazed and confused and I knew immediately that she
had lost someone she loved. I talked with her for a bit and she inquired as to where the Crime Victim’s Board was located. Through our conversation, I learned that her 32-year-old son, Eric, had not been heard from since September 11. She spoke with him after Tower
One was hit. He was in Tower Two. He told her everything was fine and they were evacuating the building. She said “Okay honey, be careful. I love you.” She showed me pictures of her son and told me about him and how he was a caring person. Tears were welling up in my eyes as I walked her to the Crime Victim’s Board so that she could begin the process of reporting Eric as “missing”. It was eight days after the attacks and she was just beginning to believe that he might not come home. I hugged her and she thanked me for listening to her stories. I walked outside to try to compose myself. I found myself in front of the wall of the missing when I saw Eric’s photo. His mom wrote a note on his poster that said, “Come home soon honey. We miss you. Love, Mom.” I cried a lot on this day.
Twelve days after the attacks, I met a woman who was still waiting for her husband to come home. She had visited the center every day since it opened. September 11 was her husband’s birthday. She remains hopeful and believes that his birthday gift will be his safe return to their family.
Another woman I met had a friend who worked at Cantor Fitzgerald, but was not listed on the “safe list” or the missing list. The “safe” list meant that an employee had been accounted for. We all knew what the missing list meant. The Cantor Fitzgerald space in the Family Assistance Center was beyond words. The people working with the families of this company were all volunteers—the sad reality being that so few of their employees survived. I sat with this woman for almost an hour as the volunteers with Cantor Fitzgerald methodically checked databases and pulled files. Unfortunately, there was no news. Throughout this meeting, my job was to hand Kleenex to this sobbing person in utter pain. She left the center to go sit on the stoop of his apartment building and wait to see if he came home.
I met a gentleman, John, working for the Red Cross at the Family Assistance Center. His son attended the daycare just two blocks from the World Trade Center and his wife worked in Tower One. She was dropping their four-year old off at the daycare just as the first plane hit the building. John did not know if his wife was in the building, or if his son was safe. The daycare was shut down and the 35 children and handful of adults were ordered to stay put. John was frantically calling his wife on the cell phone as he raced toward his son’s daycare center. He got no answer on the phone. When he neared the area, police and fire officials ordered him out. Everyone else was running through the streets in the opposite direction from John. He bolted around the barricades until he reached the daycare. By this time, the first tower had already fallen. He entered the daycare and found the children huddled together in a back room, terrified. He also found his wife. He ran into the street to summon help. Debris was falling all around when he heard the second tower begin to collapse. They remained huddled together and survived that collapse, but John knew they had to get out of there.
A city bus bringing fresh firefighters to the scene approached. John told the bus driver they had to get the kids out of there. Together, they loaded the children onto the bus and headed for the Pier. They put the kids on tugboats and took them to New Jersey. John stayed with the kids throughout the night because their parents could not get to them. The infrastructure of the city was closed and no one could travel over bridges. John was so moved by what the Red Cross was doing that he immediately became a volunteer and continues to work every day at the Family Assistance Center. Now, that’s a hero my friends.
I was reporting for duty one night at the Family Assistance Center. As always, I was slowly making my way in front of the wall, looking at the photos when this woman passed by me. I cannot describe in words the look on her face. She was walking and breathing, but she was not there. As I continued walking down the long row of photos, her face haunted me. I was wondering about her story. She was obviously traumatized. A man stopped me in front of the entrance and asked if mental health counseling was available if they didn’t directly lose a loved one. I said of course and offered to walk him into the building. He said he needed to call his wife. The same woman who had just passed by me returned. I spoke to her, but she didn’t answer. She could not hear or see me. This was common. The husband shared with me how she had been at their apartment on the morning of the attacks. They lived across the street from the World Trade Center. Through their windows, she watched in horror as flames shot out of the towers and bodies fell to the ground. Many bodies. She believed that the explosions forced some out while others leapt to their deaths. Nonetheless, lives were ending literally before her eyes.
There were countless faces of pain that I witnessed. I’ll never know their names. In subway stations, people sat and cried. Tears streamed down the faces of thousands of New Yorkers as they made their way about the city. In front of every fire station that we passed, people were knelt in prayer. There was no way to escape the magnitude of the tragedy, no matter how hard we tried.
Ken and Diane
Ken and Diane arrived for Red Cross duty at the Family Assistance Center just a few short days after the attack. While talking with them, I discovered that they had traveled from Oklahoma City. Both had lost loved ones in the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. Diane is the wife of a Secret Service agent whose body was never recovered. Ken is the son of the woman whose body was the last recovered, 40 days after the explosion. I watched them every day holding hands with the families and sharing tears. It really helped the families to talk to these two. They truly understood as none of us could.
Through all of this suffering, there were so many moments where I found myself having more faith in humanity that I ever had before. I would call back to my chapter and they would tell me that our community was responding with such compassion. All across America, sleeves were being rolled up to give blood, fundraising drives were being held, children were drawing pictures for the firefighters and police officers and prayer services were being attended. While I was in New York, I visited a fire station that lost 18 firefighters. There was an impromptu memorial established in front of the station. Flowers were piled four feet high all around the building. Statues were delivered. Photos were posted. Strangers would stop by to greet the workers and share their sympathies for those they never met. Taxicab drivers would give me free rides as their way of saying thanks. Never once did I have to pay for the subway. A little girl stopped me on the street, tugged on my sleeve and said, “thank you Red Cross for helping the people.” I received email from people I’ve never met simply because they knew I was there and wanted to share their words of thanks. I could literally feel the prayers from my family, friends, coworkers and strangers. It is the only thing that sustained me day after day. It is the positive reaction of the people of the world that I tried to focus on while in New York. Focusing on the reality of the situation simply wasn’t possible. But with all things, reality does eventually set in.
The Emotional Ground Zero
Returning from New York was almost as difficult as leaving. When the plane left LaGuardia, I could still see the smoke from Ground Zero in the air. Tears streamed down my face as I looked out the small window at a world I could no longer understand. I had been operating on pure adrenaline for three weeks. I had no idea what would happen once I got home. It has not been pleasant. For the first few days, I could barely move. I was extremely tired, emotionally and physically. Slowly, I started getting out of the house and trying to socialize. It wasn’t easy though. I found talking to be a challenge and talking about New York an even greater one. I returned to work at the local chapter and for the first week, could barely concentrate on anything. All the while, I’m only managing about two to three hours of sleep a night. When I was sleeping, my dreams were riddled with violence. I knew this would be normal, but they were still disturbing.
The second week I was home, I went into denial. I threw myself into my job, working long hours and saying I could handle everything, no problem. By the third week I was sleeping better, but had completely shut down emotionally. I was having trouble just making small talk with the gas station attendant, much less with the people close to me. My behavior had changed and not for the better. I was short tempered with the people I really care about. This was not fair to them.
The fourth week brought the loss of an important relationship in my life. The same week, I received a letter from the Disaster Operation Center at Red Cross National Headquarters. They were acknowledging the amount of time that I had served on the job and the amount of time that I’d been home. It listed possible symptoms that we might be experiencing as a result of witnessing such trauma and urged us to get in touch with our local Red Cross mental health team if we were having any emotional problems. I knew I was in trouble so I reached out to one of our Red Cross disaster mental health workers. I felt like my life was totally falling apart. The transition back to “normal life” was not going according to plan.
The counselor was wonderful in helping me to understand that my feelings of despair were okay and that I had to accept them. Partly, I felt guilty for having these feelings of despair. After all, I didn’t lose a loved one personally. I didn’t lose my job. I just lost what we all did—our sense of security. For me, I had lost some of my faith in humanity. I am a believer in peace and being surrounded by so much agony caused by hatred took its toll. I will not be alone in these feelings, that’s for sure. There will be thousands of workers who will need help in dealing with this tragedy. The families who lost loved ones will need ongoing mental health care for years. But in America, these services are available for us whenever we need them.
As I enter my fifth week following Ground Zero, I will continue to work with my mental health counselor. I will focus on the acts of compassion around our nation that truly touched my heart. I will look at this experience as a great teacher. I will not mourn the loss of the old me, but rather accept the new me. The one who has seen the worst of humanity and still has faith that people are inherently good. I hope we can all do that. I will not try to forget the horrifying scenes that are etched in my mind. Or the scenes of great compassion.
On behalf of everyone at the American Red Cross, thank you for your contribution. However you chose to help, it made a difference. We are stronger because of your help. We will give that strength to the affected families. Thank you for trusting us, as you always have, to wrap our hearts around those who need us most. We will continue working on your behalf in New York, Washington DC and other areas for years to come.
Rabbi Marc Gellman stated at that prayer service in New York: “On that day, 6,000 people did not die. On that day, one person died 6,000 times.” I say… On that day, millions of people did not give to help our world. On that day, one person gave millions of times.” Peace to you and God Bless America.