From the Front Lines After 9/11
by Sara Murphy Wright
Friends & Family,
Many of you have been calling and writing to find out how I am, and
what I am doing. I hope you will forgive me if I answer all of you
in one letter.
On Tuesday morning as I drove to work, I was listening to NPR. I heard
the reporter interrupt the newscast to say that a plane had crashed
into the World Trade Center. I was shaken, but of course I assumed
that it was just a terrible accident.
as I pulled into the parking lot at the Red Cross, the reporter jumped
in again, this time a little breathless, to say that a second plane
had crashed into the WTC. My blood ran cold as I put two and two together,
and realized that this could only be an act of terrorism. I rushed
into the building to find my colleagues running around to find a TV
that worked. We all sat down to watch.
The Ground Shakes, We Hear a Boom
As we sat there in horror, we felt the ground shake slightly, and
heard a boom in the distance. My colleagues were visibly frightened.
I probably should have been myself, but after spending part of the
Gulf War in North East Africa, I am afraid that such times put me
into more of a numb state than anything else.
course, it took only moments for the news to come out that a plane
had also crashed into the Pentagon.
We watched for a few more minutes, but we knew that now, we were no
longer bystanders, and that we were going to have a job to do.
We Have a Job to Do
My boss and I got to work immediately. She began organizing the staff,
and I began calling my disaster volunteers.
It did not take long for our office to become a whirlwind of activity.
One of the main missions of the Red Cross is to support the victims
and emergency workers in any disaster, and there were going to be
plenty of both.
soon as we had enough people in place, we sent a team of volunteers
down to the Pentagon to establish a relief operation. It was their
job to arrange for the feeding and nourishment of everyone on the
scene, and eventually for their sleeping needs. I needed to stay in
the office a little longer to bring in all the people who would be
necessary for the task.
Once I was confident that our phone tree was working its magic, I
got started handling the logistics of transportation and food procurement,
among other things. As you might imagine, the phones were ringing
off the hook, and we had to find a way to get someone to answer all
Before I knew it, I had enough volunteers in the building for a relief
shift, and it was getting late enough to send one down.
I gathered everyone together, and gave them a briefing on the situation
and the needs we were going to try to fulfill. Then we all piled in
the vans and went down to the Pentagon. It was completely dark by
then, and as we approached the Pentagon, we were all shocked to see
a bright orange halo around it.
As we got closer, we could see the flames leaping into the night,
and the thick plume of smoke that poured all around like a fog. No
one said a word. Once we arrived, we got everyone together and set
about the transition from one shift to the other.
All of a sudden, the wind shifted, and the smell of charred flesh
filled the air. It was nauseating, but everyone tried to ignore it
and continue with the task at hand. We had all been informed that
this was no longer a "search and rescue" operation, but
rather a "search and recovery" operation. This meant that
there was no hope of life inside the rubble.
After getting everyone in position, and pulling away the weary people
who had been there all day, we traveled back to the office.
The First 24 Hours
I will stop the chronological narrative at this point, because frankly
it all runs together in my head. I spent 24 hours at work that first
day, and until now have been working the night shift from about 8:00
pm to 10:00 am.
I am exhausted, but I have finally had a little rest. On Thursday
night, I arrived at 8:00 pm, and did not leave until 2:00 on Friday
afternoon. I finally came home and slept for 15 hours. I feel a little
better prepared now to explain all that I have witnessed.
We Faced Many Challenges
I have had a number of challenges on this operation. Normally, in
an event of this size, the work transfers from the local DAT (Disaster
Action Team) to the national DSHR (Disaster Services Human Resource).
The difference is significant not only in sheer numbers, but also
in the fact that while the local DAT members are generalists, the
DSHR members all specialize in a particular function. Although there
are some people who are part of both, for the most part, DAT members
have a relatively low skill level but are trained in most basic areas,
whereas DSHR members do one component of the job really well.
The problem here has been that none of our high-level DSHR officers
can get to us from around the nation because no one can fly anywhere.
Some of the functions that are activated with the DSHR are Logistics,
Transportation, Communications, Mass Care (feeding and sheltering
of large numbers of people), Government Liaison, Mental Health, and
Staffing, just to name a few.
I'm sure you can see how, when each piece is put together, we form
an almost perfect puzzle. We had lots of holes in our normal structure
since so few of our leaders can get here.
So we have all had to make do as best as possible, and place minimally
trained volunteers and staff in leadership positions to get the job
done. I am proud to say that they have done an admirable job. Up until
now, something like this has always been theoretical. While writing
our annual disaster plan, we always say, "I think we can handle
this, and I hope our volunteers will do that." We have never
really known if we were right... until now.
Our Dedicated Volunteers Give Me Faith
was so strange that, in the midst of utter tragedy, I found myself
absolutely beaming with pride at the dedication and sheer competence
of my volunteers.
I can't help feeling an additional twinge of pride in myself for having
trained most of them.
It was as though I had this battalion of people at the ready, doing
what they had been trained to do, except that no one was paying them,
they had no benefits, and they did this on their spare time out of
the goodness of their hearts. It was truly a sight to see.
As our leadership officers started arriving yesterday, all of them
remarked with awe at just how well our volunteers had handled things,
and that they had never seen a chapter respond as well before. I am
utterly blessed to associate with such people. They give me faith
in humanity, even after such devastation.
My Personal Challenges
have had a personal challenge associated with all this. While during
the day, we have had responsibilities divided up loosely along the
function lines I described, at night, it's just me, and I must do
everything. So what have I been doing?
One of my volunteers at the Pentagon calls me to say they need a thousand
blankets. (The emergency workers have been sleeping right at the Pentagon
in tents we set up.) I call stores to see if anyone is open, if they
have blankets in stock, if they will donate any or accept our purchase
orders. Then I arrange for transportation of the items to the site.
Maybe they need another five volunteers right away because they don't
have enough people. I make the calls, get them to the right place,
We have normal shift changes at midnight and 8:00 am. I organize those
people, give them a pre-shift briefing, and get them to the site.
Then I debrief the returning volunteers, find out what worked, what
needs to be improved for the next shift, and generally just let them
cry when they need to.
I handle other staffing issues, such as removing
any volunteer who is not doing their job properly. Basically, whatever
comes across the board over the course of the night, I handle as best
I can. There is never a moment of down time.
Unexpected Problems When People Want to Help
There have been some unanticipated problems associated with this catastrophe.
Sometimes, a person's desire to help can become an assault in and
We have had a number of non-Red Cross people showing up at our building,
sometimes after driving ten hours from where they live, saying they
are there to help. Usually, their concern is genuine. The problem
is that we can only use so many unskilled workers, when really our
need is for leaders with training and experience.
People have a hard time understanding that when they are not a trained
relief worker, they often become part of the problem. They put themselves
in a dangerous situation and get hurt or they become emotionally overwhelmed
and cannot function, or simply do not know how to follow a command
structure and become what I call a "vigilante volunteer".
All of these only make things more difficult, but it is hard to explain
to someone who just drove to Arlington from North Carolina.
There has been a more sordid side to some of our spontaneous volunteers.
Some of them are there sheerly for morbid curiosity, and once they
are on the scene, they do whatever they can to get close to the carnage
and see the dead bodies. You would not believe what some people have
done to get there. It just makes me sick.
Our response has simply been that we can no longer accept volunteers
who are not already part of the Red Cross system. It has upset many
people, but it has been absolutely necessary.
Too Much Generosity at Once
The other example of too much generosity has come in the form of in-kind
donations. Individuals and businesses have sent so much food to the
site that we have had to throw away literally mounds of rotting food.
We can barely manage it all.
Obviously, this is better than not having enough. It makes me sad,
though, that there are still plenty of homeless shelters in our area
that are always hurting for food. When I suggest to people that they
take their donation there because we already have what we need, they
are tremendously dissatisfied. They seem to want to be part of the
glamour of things, and are not interested in everyday problems.
The same thing has happened with blood donations. People have been
showing up at any facility with a Red Cross on it wanting to give
blood, and sometimes I feel as though I should just lance a vein to
make them happy.
One of our difficulties locally was that on Tuesday, we were having
a blood drive at the Pentagon so much of our equipment is either inaccessible
or destroyed. While we desperately need blood, people are doing more
harm than good by not first finding out where we can accept it and
When the mid-west was flooding, I remember Jesse Ventura saying that
hundreds of people came out to help put up the sand bags, but that
when it came time to take them down again, no one was interested
Tests of Valor and Goodness
I believe the true test of valor will come when the press leaves,
and we see who is still with us. Real goodness comes when no one is
watching, and we do the right thing anyway.
Our operation at the Pentagon will go on for at least a month. I suspect
that the media frenzy will have largely subsided by then.
I will let you know what happens.
A Difficult Moment
My most difficult moment came when I returned home yesterday at
about 3:00 pm to find a ticket taped to our oven. Evidently, it had
been issued for my car the day before, but had fallen on the ground.
It was issued because my inspection tags were expired. Ironically,
I had planned to get the car inspected on Tuesday.
I started crying as I realized that I had spent the past few harrowing
days ensuring the safety, comfort, and nourishment of the police,
and then a cop gave me this ticket. It's funny what finally moves
us to tears.
Violence Toward Arabs
Perhaps my deepest chagrin comes from the reaction I have seen around
the country against Arabs in our midst. The violence some of our citizens
have directed at them is absolutely insidious.
Let me tell you what I have seen from Arabs in our area. A McDonalds
store owner in Arlington named Azim stayed up all night preparing
1,600 breakfasts for the relief workers, and donated them for free.
I took my car down to a gas station yesterday to avoid getting another
ticket. The owner is Lebanese. He must have seen my fatigue, and the
Red Cross on my shirt. He looked at me with the saddest eyes and said
simply, "I'm sorry." How could I explain that this was absolutely
not his fault?
There have been little American flags going up in some of the yards
in our neighborhood. Most of them are at the homes of Arabs.
"Theirs is a Greater Suffering"
of them are Americans just like the rest of us, and have suffered
just as much of a loss in all this. I think, however, that theirs
is a greater suffering, because now, while the rest of us are able
to turn to our religious communities for support, none of them can
go to mosque because of bomb threats and vandalism. It makes me shake
As someone astutely pointed out, this act is no more a part of the
Muslim ethic than bombing an abortion clinic and killing innocent
bystanders is part of the Christian ethic. Furthermore, Timothy McVeigh
was neither Arab, nor Muslim, nor foreign.
Sometimes, evil is just simply that. It does not have a profile.
Fatigue and Shock
I am far from any sense of peace on this topic as yet. In fact, I
think I have not really begun to deal with it at all.
Most of what I have been doing has felt like a drill. In many ways,
I have been doing exactly what I always do, just for longer hours
and with more people. This is my routine, compressed.
I am moving rather hazily, through something of an ethereal cloud
of fatigue and shock. I'm not sure what to expect of the I am far from any sense of peace on this topic as yet. In fact, I
think I have not really begun to deal with it at all.
I am Blessed
Ultimately, I am just so proud of my organization, and of the volunteers
who support it. They have demonstrated to me that I am blessed to
work with the most honorable, dedicated, and competent people on earth.
Even more admirable is the fact that a year from now, when some lonely
soul in Arlington has a fire in their home, these volunteers will
respond with the exact same level of care and empathy. They are here
to serve, even when no one is looking.
"Remember That I Work in Support of You"
To my former associates from ROTC days, you are in my thoughts right
now. Our missions diverged a few years ago. I want you always to remember
that now, although I do not work alongside you, I work in support
When things look dark, remember that there is a phalanx of people
working behind the scenes to try to make you all a little more comfortable.
I wish you luck with the task ahead.
I'm not sure what else to say right now. I hope you are all well and
I ask only that you remember to keep love in your heart, and that
you not let anger overwhelm you.
When you display your American flag, maybe you should add a picture
of the globe, because we are all in this together.
All my love,
Sara (Murphy) Wright
(Murphy) Wright is our daughter-in-law. A talented writer, Sara edited
our book, Wrightslaw:
From Emotions to Advocacy - The Special Education Survival Guide.
will not be surprised to learn that Sara is committed to
helping others. A few months ago, Sara raised more than $5,000.00
to participate in the AIDS Ride.
Each participant was challenged to "practice kindness":
"We the people, in order to form a more beautiful world, do hereby
commit our time on earth and place in history to the here and now,
to open the floodgates of our hearts onto the parched deserts of the
underserved and overburdened, so that no soul be denied the dignity
of our full attention; so that no heart be held in contempt of its
dreams; so that every darkness may be enlightened; so that a sea change
may be effected on our planet and kindness be an island no more."
Last revised: 04/03/12