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Winter 2002

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After 9/11
Stories from Ground Zero

by Maryann Teale Snell

It goes without saying that Skidmore, like the rest of the country, was anguished by the events of September 11, 2001. Skidmore graduate Frank Reisman '82 was killed in the World Trade Center attack, and many others lost friends and loved ones.

In a letter to alumni, New York City club officers Peter Wan '95 and Maria Klink '97 wrote, “Truly we are all touched by the loss of lives, the horrific destruction of our tallest landmarks, and the tremendous sense of community that has since permeated our daily lives. It is this sense of unity—and the benevolent acts of so many individuals, including those within the Skidmore community—that brings us hope for repair and progress here in New York.”

With people still reeling from the trauma of 9/11, there are countless personal stories to retell—from every corner of the country and from abroad. Here are just a few.

Red Cross worker Robin Wood '98 stands before the remaining wreckage of the World Trade Center in December.

Disaster zone
     “Earlier this year a friend and I took a helicopter ride over New York,” Robin Wood '98 recalls. “We flew up by the World Trade Center and waved at the people inside—we could almost see them at their desks before we shot toward Lady Liberty and then looped around her crown. The two giant towers seemed the eternal [beacon] on the tip of the city of the world. Never did I think they could so easily fall to their knees.”

     An associate producer at CBSNews.com, Wood also volunteers with Red Cross Disaster Services. On the night of September 11, she and her team headed out to what soon became known as Ground Zero. Visibility was low as fire pierced through the smoking debris, and people wandered about blanketed in ash. Wood describes a surreal scene of metal twisted around crushed fire trucks, papers speared by tree branches and carpeting the ground, and stray pieces from people's lives: a shoe, a photograph.

     She strained to hear calls for help from the rubble and was struck by the relative silence. At triage stations, doctors—expecting an onslaught of WTC victims—found themselves treating mostly the rescue workers. Red Cross mental-health workers had been sent to help families identify bodies at the temporary morgue; but more often than not, Wood says, there were only pieces.

     A fireman who'd been at the World Trade Center all day asked Wood and a co-worker if they knew how many firefighters were missing. Wood told him she'd heard a hundred were lost. The other woman said only five were confirmed missing; then, pulling Wood aside, she explained, “You can't tell a man who has been working down here all day that a hundred of his colleagues are missing. It doesn't do any good tonight.”

Nate Barr '95 and Lisbeth Scott collected supplies and led a rental-truck convoy from L.A. to New York City.

     Covered in dust from head to toe, Wood felt the powder on her face cutting into her skin. “A nurse told me I would have to throw away my clothes,” she remembers. “I knew the dust would not wash out.”

     Exhausted and knowing she had to be at CBS at 6:30 the next morning, Wood headed home; but she couldn't sleep. “Dan Rather's hypnotic voice replaced rest until it was time to make my way back to the city,” she says. A different New York awaited her: The streets were empty. After a long wait, she caught a bus. Dazed, Wood had to be reminded to pay the fare.

     She spent much of the next week in and around Ground Zero, assessing damage. The spirit of cooperation was readily apparent, Wood states. “Fitness centers, storefronts, and restaurants had been converted into triages or temporary police headquarters. Every-one thanked each other for their work, their support and contributions—and they meant it. Firemen were applauded. Flags began springing up everywhere. I acquired a helmet with an American flag waving over bold, black letters declaring ‘United We Stand.' I felt pride, patriotism, and a developing optimism.” As workers vacuumed the sidewalks, replaced broken windows, and hosed off the streets, one thing became clear. “The clean-up,” Wood says, “was a catharsis for the city.”

Coast to coast
     On the West Coast, Nate Barr '95—like many people nationwide—wanted to help out. Several days after the attacks, he spoke with his friend John Johnston '95, who works for city councilman Martin Golden in New York. “He asked if there was anything I could do to help get much-needed supplies to New York,” Barr recounts. “I decided to organize a donation drive in Los Angeles and rent a truck across country.”

     Barr and girlfriend Lisbeth Scott made up 6,000 flyers and distributed them in and around L.A. Scott spoke with a friend, a captain for the Los Angeles Fire Department, who designated four local fire stations as drop-off points for donations. KTLA Channel 5 news caught wind of the drive in progress and offered to do a spot. Within hours of the story being aired, donations started rolling in at the fire stations. “The response was beyond anything we could ever have hoped for,” Barr relates.

Volunteers from Lifetime TV and other workplaces dish up meals for relief workers near Ground Zero.

     Barr checked in frequently with Johnston in New York, to find out what supplies were needed and what ones no longer were. People dropped off aspirin, face masks, welding equipment, medical supplies, electric saw blades, dog food, flashlights, and shovels. Companies—like the one that donated six cases of flashlights—offered products in bulk. Just to keep up with the donations, Barr and his friends retrieved items from the fire stations several times a day. They were continually amazed by “incredible acts of generosity,” such as the day a homeless man came to one of the fire stations to donate a jacket with the word “Patriot” on the back. “He asked us to make sure the jacket got to someone who could use it in New York,” Barr says.

     The drive lasted nearly a week. “My girlfriend's backyard was turned into a warehouse full of supplies, which were sorted and boxed around the clock by friends and neighbors,” Barr reports. Then, with gas money donated by L.A. residents and a pair of trucks offered by Penske Trucking, Barr and his helpers headed for New York City. “We had giant signs on our trucks saying ‘L.A. to N.Y. with love,' and drivers always gave us a friendly honk or a thumbs-up,” says Barr. “Several people at gas stations approached us while we were fueling up, handed us cash, and said, ‘God bless.'” They arrived in New York four days later and were greeted by Johnston and Councilman Golden, who arranged for a police escort downtown. The trucks were unloaded by the Army Reserves, and supplies needed most desperately were taken directly to Ground Zero.

     “It was so gratifying to be able to help from 3,000 miles away,” Barr concludes. “The comment we heard over and over again from people in L.A. was, ‘Thank you for giving us a way to help—we felt so helpless.' It's events like this that truly pull us all together. I hope we continue to love, support, and respect one another in the years to come, and that we all remember how much love has come out of an act of such hatred.”

Workers united
     In November, describing the destruction of the World Trade Center, Meredith Wagner '80 said, “You walk outside and you still smell it. The smoke is amazing.” A senior vice president at Lifetime TV in New York City, Wagner has friends at CBS who ran for their lives on September 11. “Everybody has a story,” she says, “and everybody is compelled to tell it.”

     For her part, she's found it “truly remarkable observing the best and the worst of the world collide. In essence,” she says, “our collective souls got a wake-up call.” Wagner and her co-workers volunteered to help out, teaming up at Nino's—a small Italian restaurant near the site of the World Trade Center towers—to provide thousands of meals to WTC relief workers. Nino's intends to stay open twenty-four hours a day as long as there are crews to feed, and Wagner and her colleagues are in it for the long haul. They peel potatoes and make meatballs, cook, clean, serve, and take out the garbage. “We're committed to doing this until Nino's closes,” Wagner says, adding that some Skidmore friends—including Missy Godfrey Fitzpatrick '80—have joined in the cooking frenzy there.

     Besides their efforts at Nino's, Lifetime TVers also put in hours at the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 and donated telephone cards, grocery store gift certificates, blankets, and hundreds of dollars worth of transit checks. “The feedback we've received from over a hundred of our employees who have volunteered,” Wagner says, “is that it's been the best possible healing experience: life affirming and positive.” She herself has lived in the city for twenty years and says September 11 and its aftershocks have “brought out the best in New York—I hope it lasts.”

Maryann Teale Snell is Scope's new associate editor. She was previously associate editor of the Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly for ten years.

Voices from around the country

E-mails, letters, and phone calls poured in to Skidmore after September 11, as community members tried to sort out what had happened and report their reactions. Here's a sampling of those impressions—from students overseas, from professors on and off campus, from alumni caught in the rawness of it all.

“The World Trade Center was a symbol, a shining example of capitalism at work, America's pride and joy...The last time I was in the building, I remember standing right up against the outer walls and staring straight up, thinking how it appears to rise up forever...I cried when I saw the towers collapse. Maybe because I was scared for those inside, maybe because I was shocked at such destruction, or maybe because the barbarians just broke down the gate to my backyard....I don't want to go home to this...I want my security back. I want to hear that all my friends are OK...If any of my friends are dead, I think I might go crazy.”
—A freshman from New York City, writing from London, England, 9/12/01

“BBC radio has been broadcasting the “Star-Spangled Banner”...as a gesture of solidarity and condolence. It's hard to imagine a sillier symbolic gesture, but it brings tears to my eyes nevertheless. Right now it's like living in two worlds, isn't it: the normal everyday one, and the nightmare that resurfaces constantly all day long....I went over the top today and attended a prayer service at St. Paul's. It was quite beautiful and moving. And the choir really did sound like angels. I thought of their music bringing down softly all those who flew from the fire. It's a juxtaposition my mind has gone back to again and again—the choir and the mental image of people jumping out of the towers. I think it combines both the power and the powerlessness of prayer, its completeness and its vacancy.”
—Sarah Goodwin, professor of English, e-mailing from London, 9/14/01

“There are a few moments in life that call into question one's deepest beliefs, the cherished core of who one claims to be. The usual superficial concerns that seem to cloud my head disappeared, and while I questioned myself as to how there could be such dark, overriding hate in the world, the only reply my mind, my body, and my soul could seem to muster was how deeply I loved my family....The sound of my mother's calm voice reassuring me of [their] safety could not have been sweeter. My head ached from hours of tensions and tears...I will never forget that day of massacre. New York, that day, seemed more my home than it has ever been, and I, never more patriotic.”
—Mieke ten Have '05 of New York City, writing from London, 9/12/01

“The past days continue to haunt my thinking. I recall as a new student at the University of North Carolina the shock of Pearl Harbor. Although I have spent fifty years in higher education where the study and sharing of ideas is a daily event, the terror of September 11 still remains unbelievable. It is with great pride that I hear how graciously and carefully the Skidmore College administration has cared for our students.”
—Nancy Davis, professor emerita of physical education, of Saratoga Springs, in a letter to President Studley, 9/27/01

“I particularly appreciate your emphasis on tolerance and understanding, compassion and unity. I am really afraid of blind patriotism fed by our nation's tendency to isolate itself from the world community. This is helped immensely by the so-called news that people watch on TV. In our neck of the woods, our local station features the “World in a Minute,” a trivial attempt to show us a glimpse of the rest of the world—an insult to the world community. Education and more balanced media are vital! Thank you for playing your part. I'm flying the U.N. flag and sending my tax rebate to the U.N. and the Red Cross.”
—Katharine Dodge, mother of Asa Snyder '04 of Lake Ariel, Pa., in a letter to President Studley, 9/29/01

“We were freshmen when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and new graduates when the war ended. As senior citizens, we have been benignly thought of as flag-waving, patriotic old folks reminiscing about past war events. There was terror abroad, but not here. Now the whole country and all ages understand what we and previous generations have experienced....I spent a day crying; I just couldn't stop. I did not realize how many tears were still in me from the time Pearl Harbor happened. But they are there, and I shed them un-ashamedly and often. I don't understand the mindset of people who do such terrible things to innocent others who weren't harming anyone, just going to work as usual... How little we knew about hatred. How sad we have to learn such a lesson again.”
—Meg Noble Evans '45 of Englewood, Colo., writing to class secretary Olga Massimiano Gigante '45 in Alexandria, Va., 10/4/01

“Since September 11, I have been busy with crisis response, debriefings, and so forth. I am one of the national instructors for disaster mental health for the Red Cross, and have been asked to go to New York City to teach mental-health responders. I, like everyone else, am dealing with the stages of response to this: acknowledgment of the wounding, response, and preparation. It's actually been a very spiritually intense time for me, as it has been for many. Nevertheless, personal issues and concerns still draw a lot of my attention, and the other things are a somewhat constant backdrop. I wish us all peace.”
—Laurie Williams Hamilton '70 of Asheville, N.C., writing to class secretary Barbara Crossman Bell '70 in Syracuse, N.Y.

“Your letter is a comfort to all of us graduates in knowing that events and persons on campus are part of the truly wonderful spirit of the nation as we face an unknown future...I think [our] twofold challenge in this era of widening relationships is [being aware] of the oneness of the human species overriding our differences and finding, through compassion overriding vengeance, ways of response that will be more creative than destructive.”
—Helen Pack Booth '27 of St. Louis, Mo., in a letter to President Studley, 9/25/01

“I am a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Public Health Service Surgeon General's group, stationed at Arkansas Regional Laboratory. I was temporarily detailed to New York City and assigned to the mortuary team, tasked with the responsibility of body identification. I was at a meeting in D.C. on the 11th, so I have been on site at both areas now. I was released from temporary duty to return to Arkansas...[but] have been advised that I should remain available for re-deployment.”
—John Eckert '85 of Pine Bluff, Ark., writing to biology professor Bernard Possidente, 10/12/01

“I spent the morning online with a group of Iranian-Americans from Relief International in Los Angeles who wanted to make immediate contributions to the relief effort. They wanted to show their solidarity with the U.S. in light of the surge of hate crimes targeting Arabs....My friends and I drove in the rain to Home Depot in Brooklyn and bought respiratory masks, rubber gloves, work gloves, hard hats, rain tarps, garbage bags, first-aid kits, and ear plugs. We faxed an authorization form to Farshad Rastegar of Relief International for a purchase of well over $1,000. With President Bush's arrival, security had gotten very tight. We were allowed back into lower Manhattan with a police escort. The sun came out, and the beautiful blue sky [appeared in stark contrast to the] behemoths of scorched wreckage. We shuddered as we passed an old graveyard filled with [debris] from the explosions. There were piles of clothes and a lone shoe, which I couldn't focus on or I would have dropped the mental ball. We distributed our supplies to people who needed them and left the remainder at the Salvation Army and Red Cross supply tents. I feel secure that everything that can be done there is being done. I have no desire to return to Ground Zero until the general public is permitted access.”
—Ian Belton '94, writing in his journal from New York City, 9/14/01

 


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