As I drove away, I was filled with relief. After months of being in limbo, the time had finally begun. I was looking forward to the coming year, meeting new people, traveling, learning new things. This week of training would only be the beginning. Besides, it would be nice to have some time away from home and the responsibilities that come with it. Of course, I would miss my family, but it was only a week. There are 38 of us, from all over the country, in Dallas to begin a year of National Service in AmeriCorps, Corps aCross Texas program. We will spend the next year working in disaster services with the American Red Cross.
Our first day of real training starts off with teaming exercises, the kind where the trainers “trick” us, and we have to work together to discover the “trick” and solve the problem. It’s a bit cheesy but effective for the most part. We then endure hours of classes: Orientation to Red Cross, Introduction to Disaster Services, Damage Assessment. The hours are long, the material less than captivating. Finally the day draws to a close, and we are granted a few hours of free time.
We begin the second day of training with less vigor than the day before, dreading the monotony that we are confident awaits us. The first few hours are much the same as the previous day: cheesy teaming exercises followed by the drudgery of learning about Mass Care in a disaster. Unexpectedly, Rena, the director of AmeriCorps, interrupts the class. Visibly shaken, she speaks briefly with the instructor then directs her attention toward the group.
Struggling with her words, she tells us, “I think you all should know that two planes have flown into the World Trade Center in New York City. There are other planes that are suspected to have been hi-jacked as well. America is under attack.”
Silence overcomes the room as our minds try to digest the information. Someone says, “Oh, this is a joke. It’s another teaming exercise!”
My mind hears this explanation and battles to believe it, but I know that it’s not true. This is not the kind of thing you play a game about. The room begins to buzz, and the television is turned on to CNN where we see with our own eyes the horrific reality. The director is called from the room, but before she leaves, she suggests we all take a few minutes to get in touch with our families. Grateful for that opportunity, everyone rushes to a phone. Suddenly I am not so appreciative of some time away from home and my family.
I don’t know how much time passed, but it wasn’t long until we were asked to reconvene. Rena informs us that National American Red Cross has asked the Dallas Area Chapter to act as the Family Well-Being Inquiry center in this disaster. Briefly explaining that the families of those in the affected area will be calling to try to find their loved ones, she informs us that we will begin receiving those calls in 15 minutes. “I know you haven’t received training in this function, and it is unfair to ask this of you. Please do not feel that you have to say yes. By a show of hands, who is ready to work their first disaster assignment?”
Every hand in the room went up without hesitation. No one knew what to expect or even what to do. We weren’t prepared for what was coming, and we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We only knew that we had to do something, anything.
With tears in her eyes and obvious pride in her “Corps,” Rena began passing out the forms that we would be using to collect information. We were given brief instructions on how to handle the calls that would be coming in, and then we were directed to the Disaster Command Center on the second floor.
The Command Center was abuzz with activity. The back wall was filled with television sets, all on and tuned to a different station even though they were all showing much of the same thing. As I sat at the desk I was assigned to, staring at the phone, willing it not to ring, the first tower fell. Before I could digest what my eyes were seeing, the phone rang. I picked it up and stepped into a kind of hell I could never have imagined.
Time passed, and the phones continued to ring. With each call, I am drawn more intimately into the surreal events that were unfolding on the multitudes of TVs at the back of the room. The morning passed into afternoon, and the afternoon faded into evening. More and more people began filling the room as the people in our community flocked to the Red Cross to offer their help.
At one point we were provided with blueprints of the towers, depicting what companies had been located on what floors and the locations where the planes had struck. We knew those who had been at work on those floors would most likely not be found, but we had to keep that information to ourselves. Staring with horror and disbelief at the blueprints, my eyes fixated on the name Cantor Fitzgerald. The blueprint disappeared as behind my eyes I envisioned that name on a form I had completed earlier. The call had come from a 13-year-old girl. As I relived that call, I heard her telling me that it was just she and her dad, that she didn’t have anyone else. Her aunt lived in Oklahoma City, and she had already called her. She was coming to be with her but didn’t know how long it would be before she arrived. I pictured her father, as she described him to me, a single parent doing his best to raise his young daughter alone, an executive at Cantor Fitzgerald that would not be coming home.
Sometime during the night I was asked, along with Christine, a fellow Corps member, to go through a list of survivors and match them up with the inquiries we had received. As we were given the boxes of completed forms to check, I was shocked by how many there were. Confident of finding many matches, Christine and I began the tedious process. One by one, we went through them, searching for a match. Minutes turned to hours. Having completed the first box without finding a name on the survivor list, we became desperate to match just one form with a name, to find at least one family that we could give good news to, one person who we could help. As the night faded into morning, Christine and I reluctantly began to accept the devastating reality of what had happened.
While others in the country were turning to their families for comfort, we had only strangers to turn to. Surrounded by those we had only just begun to know, we formed bonds that would give us the comfort and strength to do what we must in the days to come.
As the hours turned to days, the calls gradually stopped coming. The silence became deafening as the dead pulled their chairs up beside us. The work turned from answering phones to research as we began to seek answers for those who had called us, to try to find their loved ones.
We worked 15-hour days, six days a week, taking the seventh day off as required by the Red Cross on all disaster assignments. My first day off since that now infamous day, my fianc and daughter met me for a day of light-hearted fun and entertainment. It was the first time I had been outside while the sun was still shining, and it seemed very strange to me. Everything seemed different, places once familiar had an alien quality to them. We went to a local shopping center, and as I watched the people milling about, having a good time, going on with life as if nothing had changed, I became outraged. How dare they? Didn’t they understand? Did they even care?
Surrounded by death and despair, I was filled with a desperate hope and a longing for a world that no longer existed. I knew their names, and their stories became a part of me, my life. They became My family, My friends. No longer strangers to me, I knew them intimately. When I closed my eyes each night their faces haunted me.
Weeks passed and the answers were no easier to find than they had been in the first few hours. As I battled depression, my relationships with family and friends suffered. I was no longer able to relate to them, any more than they could relate to me. They had watched the events unfold on television as I had been cast into the thousands of homes who were missing a family member. They had begun the healing process as I stagnated in the desperate attempt to gain more information. They had gone on with life as I wallowed beneath the rubble of destroyed lives. They went into the world, smiled, joked and did all the things we do on a daily basis, in a “normal” world, while I was sorting through lists of body parts, trying to determine which “file” I could match with an index finger of a male Caucasian nail biter.
Beyond exhaustion, I wanted it to be over; I wanted to go home. Before I could do that, we had to close all the “cases.” To accomplish that, we had to verify what had become of the person being sought. I picked up a case and read the description – name … 57 years-old … male … brown hair … hazel eyes 5′ 11″ last seen wearing black trousers with a light blue shirt dark tie suit jacket great chuckle. Dropping the case back onto the pile, I fled the room, the building. I had to get outside, to breathe, escape – if only for a moment.
It had been days since I had been able to accomplish the task of “verification,” and I was desperate for closure when I came across a name that was familiar to me. I knew I had seen it before, somewhere amongst the thousands of cases. Quickly, I searched through the files until I finally located the one I had been seeking. Rushing back to my workstation, I easily verified all the information. I had found a positive match! I could close a case! YES!!!!!! One step closer to going home! Filled with excitement and great pride over my accomplishment
I realized that I had just proven that a man was dead. A man, who had kissed his wife goodbye one morning, perhaps dropped his kids off at school that day. And then he had gone to work, unaware that he would be cast in a hero’s role before lunch. A man who loved his family, loved his work and loved life. A man who had a great chuckle.
I went on to serve not only in Dallas but also in New York where I spent Christmas and New Years doing damage assessment at the apartment buildings located in and around Ground Zero and case work to assist those affected most. I have spent 10 years wishing I could forget everything I saw, heard and did. But I haven’t forgotten. And it is important to always remember, because of the man who had a great chuckle.
Hoofard is a Paradise resident.
Look for more of WCMessenger.com’s special 9/11 tribute at www.wcmessenger.com/911.