The events of September 11, 2001, were seared into the collective minds of all Americans. Everyone who was alive when the twin towers fell can remember exactly where they were when they either heard the news or saw the events unfold in real time on their television.
I heard someone today describe it as “our generation’s Pearl Harbor.”
In the week after 9/11 exactly 20 years ago, I could think of little else. How? Why? Who? There were no flights for days. Travel was at a virtual standstill.
Then my mother called me during the week after 9/11 and told me she was flying to New York City on September 18 as a Red Cross volunteer.
I almost dropped the phone.
Mom — we call her ‘Mema’ — had served as a Red Cross volunteer for years. She and my dad were trained as Red Cross responders. Both retired, they would take a Red Cross van to disaster spots after big weather events, like the Carolinas or the Gulf Coast and be gone from their home in Fort Smith, Ark., sometimes for weeks.
So, the Red Cross called and asked if she would fly to New York and become a trainer for hundreds or thousands of new volunteers who would serve the hurting population of the city.
She said yes, of course. Her family was nervous, but proud that she was willing to go.
This is her story:
“I left Fort Smith on an American commuter flight to Dallas, changed to non-stop jet to LaGuardia. It was not the first flight into NYC. The Red Cross office was already up and running in Brooklyn from Day One. I was asked by our state Red Cross office to volunteer to teach the classes required for every volunteer arriving before they were assigned to their work areas.
“I arrived in NYC to an empty airport, with phones not in service and no one to welcome us. Passengers on my flight were very scarce; the plane probably was about one-third capacity. I arrived exactly one week after the disaster, stayed in an elite hotel on Broadway, left for work by bus at 6:30 am, got back to hotel around 9 pm, had one day off in three weeks. We were treated with respect and courtesy by locals both traveling and eating.
“I never saw Ground Zero — it was blocked off to all traffic from six blocks away. I saw plenty of smoke and ashes from my travels from Manhattan, where I was lodged, to Brooklyn to work. Lots of workers suffered breathing problems from being out in the air full of ashes and dust. My most memorable moment was when a New York native on the subway said ‘if this had not happened, we wouldn’t have given you the time of day. But now with so many volunteers here, we welcome you, everyone.’
“Every time I had a class, I was very emotional because the casualty list kept growing and the distress shown by the New York natives was very strong. I hope I never again witness such destruction in America. It’s my daily prayer — God bless our country!”
This was her perspective looking back after 20 years. She told me that because it happened in the age before everyone carried smart phones with cameras, she did not have a single photograph made during the three weeks she was in New York.
I’m proud of you, Ella Jean Stafford, and thankful for your service in our nation’s time of need. I salute you.