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From the Front Lines After 9/11
by Sara Murphy

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Dear 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.

Just 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.

Of 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.

As 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 the inquiries.

Briefing Volunteers

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

It 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

I 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, etc.

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 of itself.

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.

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"

Many 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 with rage.

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"

American flagTo 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 of you.

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 accounted for.

earth as blue marbleI 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

Meet Sara

Sara Murphy is a talented writer. She edited our book, Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy - The Special Education Survival Guide.

You 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."

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