Picking up a lifeline in the aftermath

Oct. 11, 2001, midnight | By Katie Jentleson | 19 years, 3 months ago

Chips’ editor volunteers as telephone dispatcher for Red Cross after tragedy of Sept 11

"The best thing for you to do right now is remain in the presence of family and friends,” I tell the man on the other end of the line, congratulating myself for giving such sound advice.
But my words fall short as he replies, "She was it. I have no one else.”

I stammer and sputter out the telephone numbers for missing persons hotlines, but the hysteria of the man on the phone tells me that he's not listening. He is from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and his sister was on the 47th floor of the World Trade Center on Sept 11, 2001.

During my correspondence with the man, I awkwardly tried to hide my tears with a bowed head under the long bill of my baseball hat. I didn't want anyone to see me cry. After all, we were supposed to be able to handle calls like that. Our scripts even had a section that specified what we were to say to missing persons inquiries. They dictated the following response: "I'll take your information, and it will be forwarded to our Red Cross Family Well-Being Center. Please note that due to the chaotic circumstances . . . ” But I could never find my way past that line.

As the man sobbed on the other end of the line, I remembered the sheer panic I had felt the day before when I worried for my own brother's safety. My brother also lives in Manhattan, and the thought of losing him was too much to bear. Fortunately, he did escape the tumult unscathed; I can only hope the same is true for that man's sister.

I had this conversation on Sept 12 when I worked as a telephone dispatcher along with three other Blair seniors, Juliana Stevenson, Alissa Munoz and Amanda Wallace, at the American Red Cross (ARC) National Headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia. Munoz's mother, Pam Denning, is an ARC employee, and she recruited the four of us to answer and redirect the hundreds of calls concerning blood and money donations, missing persons and ways to volunteer that were pouring into headquarters after the attack on America.

Reporting to headquarters

Our day as ARC volunteers began around 11:30 a.m. as we were ushered upstairs into the Armed Forces Security Center conference room and introduced to the ARC staff, including Public Relations Director Jennifer Richmond. Richmond explained that we would each be assigned a phone, and, using the scripts she gave us as a guide, we would respond as best we could to our callers.

Some time after lunch I was completely stunned by a woman calling from Los Angeles who was looking to donate $250,000 of her company's money to the disaster relief fund. I could scarcely find the words to tell her to whom she could make the check.

Later on, we got a call from a Utah native who told us that, because she wanted to donate all the money she could, she was having a yard sale. She assured us that her profits would probably only be around $23. Her sentiment seemed so noble it might as well have been $250,000.

All monetary donations were welcome regardless of size because, according to Richmond, money is "the quickest way to help the victims.” And for ARC during a crisis like this, timeliness is vital. "It's completely different than a flood or a hurricane,” Richmond says. "At least with those kinds of disasters we can prepare people and mobilize supplies in advance.”

Giving money was not the only way people showed their commitment to relief. All day, people called with offers of food supplies, their skills as medical professionals and their blood. According to ARC, within six hours of the attacks, 700,000 Americans had called to schedule appointments at ARC blood centers.

Reaching out

Astounding acts of kindness were not exclusive to Americans. Stevenson recalls that when she returned to volunteer again on Sept 22, she answered an e-mail that she will always remember. "This guy from Macedonia wrote to the Red Cross saying he was a doctor there, and though he didn't have any training here, he wanted to help America any way he could . . . from the ‘bottle' of his heart,” she says.

Stevenson goes on to explain that although she was in essence the one providing ARC with help, the volunteer work was indeed a mutually beneficial experience. "It helped reassure my faith in mankind,” she says.

One thing we certainly learned through our volunteer work is that hope still abounds in America. The National Search and Rescue Squad is still accepting trained medical personnel and supply donations. The Salvation Army is still collecting steel-toed boots and tube socks for the recovery workers. And the phones have not stopped ringing at ARC.

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Katie Jentleson. Katie Jentleson is currently a senior attending the Communication Arts Programs at Blair. This is her second year on paper although she was enrolled in Mr. Mathwin's journalism class both semesters two years ago. Katie has played field hockey and softball for the past three … More »

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