Bandanas and earrings: My memories of Sept 11, 2001

Camp Unity loglI have the utmost respect for the people in New York who worked in and responded to the towers. For the people near the Pennsylvanian field. For the people who were saved, and for the people who tragically lost their lives. I remember that 9/11 ended horrifically for many people in three locations, and the people who knew and loved them are all over the country and around the globe. For me, my memories of 9/11 is the Pentagon.

As write, it is late at night on September 11, 2009. I’ve been thinking on and off today about where was eight years ago. I passed someone in the hallway at work and she said “happy anniversary, we met eight year ago today.” Another friend reflected to eight years ago on Facebook and my simple comment back was “bandanas and earrings 🙂 .” I hear other people’s stories about their experiences and many center around watching TV for days and weeks straight. I didn’t watch much TV during September, and I didn’t see the constant replay of the tragedy. I believe am lucky in that respect. I don’t consider my experience of September 2001 special, yet do feel I’m one of small cadre of people with perspective different than most. I spent the day of September 11, 2001 in the Arlington County Emergency Operations Center. Then spent the rest of September’s nights at location that became known as Camp Unity until the response and recovery phase was completed and the American Red Cross left the Pentagon parking lot.

The morning of Sept 11, 2001 was like many other mornings. I was at work at the American Red Cross in the IT department’s Project Management Office. The news reports started to come in. We heard about New York and what was going on there. It seemed so distant. Then we heard about something at the Pentagon. As the news continued on, it became clearer that something big was happening. My disaster work at the time was as volunteer for Arlington County Chapter – the county where the Pentagon resides.

I left the office and drove to the chapter building which is about halfway toward DC from the office. There was lack of communication from county officials which left us wondering what to do at the chapter. I was asked to go to the County EOC to find out information and share that back to the chapter leadership. As drove toward the EOC, there was stream of traffic leaving the other way. A police officer stopped me. When showed my badge for the Red Cross, he said “Ok. medical person. We need you. Drive on.”

I arrived at the EOC and they put me in room with other folks in emergency housing task force per their typical EOC setup. After couple lack luster minutes of looking at folks there, I went to the main EOC room to get in front of the core people to explain what we as the Red Cross could do. It struck me just how recognized the Red Cross brand is yet misunderstood at the same time.

Much later I learned about an interesting comparison, the chapter in New York responded quickly and setup at the towers. I’m told you don’t hear raging inferno of building that is hundreds of feet above your head; that you just don’t hear it at street level. However, you do hear the sound of the glass, stone and bodies impacting the pavement. The volunteers there walk away from the scene because of this. The Red Cross ERV that was left got crushed under the building when it collapsed. In Arlington, the response to the Pentagon was not immediate while we waited for official word that it was safe. The President and CEO of the Red Cross chastised the New York executive for going to quick to the scene and Arlington executive for being too slow. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t. Either way, I’m glad she’s no longer the CEO, and her and her broom are gone.

When the Arlington EOC scaled back for the evening, I returned to the chapter. They needed someone to drive shuttle van to the Pentagon with people. After few shuttle runs, the evening crew was out and the overnight crew was there. People were needed, so I stayed. The first few days were whole lot of hours. I kept going to my paid work at the Red Cross during the day and to volunteer at the Pentagon at night. When fell asleep in staff meeting few days into it, my boss told me to go help with the response until was no longer needed.

All the important, high mucky mucks were on the scene when the sun was up during the day. The Pentagon brass, Arlington County leadership, and anyone of importance came through. Things settled down in the evening when they went home. The overnight shift was great because only people there were ones who had to work. Once a rhythm got into place, I shared Red Cross worker in charge status with Doc Terry. He handled all the mental health workers, and I got all the rest which was mostly mass care folks. Doc Terry is black man with big silver earrings. I am white man wearing flag design bandana. It was an interesting image. We were not there to impress people; we had work to do. Bandanas and Earrings.

Here are some of my memories of that time in no particular order as the nights flowed together into one experience. This was the first time I had ever been to the Pentagon. One of the heads of the Pentagon facility crew worked nights and we met each other. We took an electric cart and he showed me all around the inside of the pentagon at night. I learned lot. Including that they did things like renovate a shower closet and put desk in there because someone pissed off high-ranking officer.

On the second or third day, I asked someone volunteering with me how they were doing. He said: I went home, had myself good cry, slept and now I’m back to do it again.

There were lot of food, snacks and drink deliveries to the Tricare Health Clinic and into rooms that we wouldn’t be allowed in on normal day. Get in, drop off the full cambro, pick up the empty one, get out and pretend nothing said in the room was heard.

There was the rumor of an Admiral being detained (a polite term for arrested) because he was pushing too much brass on people trying to see the scene when he had no authority to be there.

A volunteer took some photos of the scene when she got there … despite the big sign to the contrary. A well marked man with fully automatic weapon across his chest said that she needed to give him the camera. She refused because she wanted other photos on the roll. He was going to either arrest her or take the camera. She was arguing with an armed man. She was sent home not to return. After that had to start all operational pre-shift briefings (and still do today) with “Rule #1: Do not argue with people carrying fully automatic weapons. Do what they say and then come tell me about it later.”

Someone told us that our radios interfered with the helicopter traffic control tower. They “knew” it was the Red Cross because the people were talking about food. We took back all the radios one night to stop this. The next day, I learned it was the Salvation Army radios in their canteens. Our radios were on totally separate frequency band.

A person snuck into the compound, took some fire department turn out gear and Red Cross vest and was driving around trying to pick up the female volunteers. One of the fire department Logistics guys and I took it all back and sent him on his way. He claimed to be fire department volunteer from county in Maryland. That department had never heard of him.

There were multiple threats in the first few days that had everyone running for cover. The nearest cover was some tunnels and under overpasses. It was quite long distance but could be covered very quickly when properly motivated.

Identification was lesson. At the check-in and badging point, there was three or four page stapled sheet with all the possible and valid Red Cross IDs that someone may use. At least we were not the only group with this issue. It was strong lesson in unified and consistent badges for an organization. I also met person who became dear friend outside the ID tent. I’ll never forget his bloodshot eyes.

Mornings were interesting. As people rolled in, they passed their judgment on work done through the night. The overnight shift always got blamed for stuff that the evening shift really put into place. It was odd. Most striking was the Red Cross command vehicle. After number of days, it smelled and was dirty inside. One of the overnight folks volunteered to clean it up. She spent the entire night cleaning the inside and it looked great. All the papers were collected and put in manila folder – there were at most 20 pages. The day administrative person came in and pitched fit. I clearly recall her yelling to this volunteer: “You’re just volunteer and don’t know better. I’m trained Red Cross worker.” That was about all could take before I interceded. The “just volunteer” now works at Red Cross headquarters and the “trained Red Cross worker” is gone.

We called one of our sites “Ft. AP Hill” because that was painted on the site of the big green tent we were in. This site was outside the pentagon on the grassy area where all the response equipment was. When people asked where to get stuff, we’d direct them to the tent with “Ft. AP Hill” on the side. We later discovered that all the tents had that same writing on the side.

My strongest visual memory came after couple weeks of work. The sun had started to rise over the Pentagon. For some reason, I stopped to look. The bright colors of morning juxtaposed with the collapsed and batter building. It was awe inspiring and can still give me chills today.

My biggest auditory memory came in my own bed in my own home. I was sleeping days and waking at night. I arose from my bed to the sound of generators and people asking for stuff. The sound was deafening, but faded as I arose. There was nobody at my quiet house.  I never really thought until that moment just how constant the noise was on the site. All the power was from noisy small generators.

Another lady from the chapter and I were selected to attend the memorial service at the National Cathedral. After working all night, we changed in the command truck into something suitable. It was us, the Red Cross president and other dignitaries. I cracked my head into speaker hanging from pillar in the first couple rows. I was waiting for it to fall. Apparently I was the tallest of the people in that row. It was loud and noticed by most everyone there.

A pickup truck pulled up to the backside of the parking lot. Loaded in the back of the truck was pile of stuff. The driver said that this was all donated by his company for the response. He also handed me an envelope stuffed with checks from the employees. We quickly devised process for handing donations on the site.

There is Price Club (now Costco) near the Pentagon. The store manager came over and asked what we needed. Soon a truck from the store pulled up with lots of tables and chairs. One of the nearby hotels did similar thing but brought huge load of meals.

I was taught new saying about disasters. You don’t know when you’ll get it again so when there is chair, sit; when there is food, eat; where there is a bed, sleep.

We ended up moving entire pallet loads of drinks and snacks to the main distribution points at night. They would all be used by the next night. There were makeshift roads over the grass created by gravel. I learned to drive forklift out of necessity. I also learned that forklift with wheels designed for warehouse will get stuck in gravel. And a small platoon of solders will not be able to move it. A passing tow truck however can make quick work of pulling it out. After that lesson, we stuck to the asphalt streets.

A person can always get the last work in during an argument as long as the words are yes and sir.

I ran into buddy from the country bar that hung out in. He was part of an urban search and rescue team. These are some hardcore people with what they do. I asked how he was doing. I remember that his response was verbally short yet powerful in non-verbal. His eyes told stories of the things he saw, and I couldn’t even image. We hugged. The mental health folks working with these teams were helping these folks contain and control so they could do their job while on-site. I’m sure it was task to get these people to open up afterwards

A faith-based organization setup large tent where people could rest and eat their meals. While not suppose to proselytize, there was always religious papers on the tables and someone always ready to strike up conversation about non-earthly topics.

Running string back to the throttle on gator will allow it to attain faster speeds then by pressing down on the accelerator alone. The problem is that it can get stuck in the open position. With any luck the guard at the entrance will recognize you and let you speed through until you get to the maintenance spot where the engine gets shut off.

There is tunnel that runs from the parking lots to the center grassy area inside the pentagon.A  large vent in the tunnel blew air out from inside the building. I was with someone who recognized a smell and they brought in search dogs to see if it was nearby. They determined that it was coming from remains deep in the building that the smells were pulled though the ventilation system.

McDonalds, Outback and maybe Burger King all brought in trailers to Camp Unity to cook food. Seriously, the McDonald’s trailer looked just like the inside of restaurant from the counter back when they got it setup. A properly cooked Outback steak is still good few hours later when properly stored, but blooming onion doesn’t keep well

I knew person briefly who was involved in the engineering of the Pentagon renovations year or two before the attack. The impact site was right where recently renovated portion connected to non-renovated site. I could neither remember her name nor recognize her in the photos of people lost. To this day, I wonder if she was there.