American Red Cross Central New York Region volunteers Vince Calcara, of Oneida County, and Carol Whitlow, of Tompkins County, were two of about 15 Red Cross mental health volunteers who were deployed in late May for the opening of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.
Vince, who was deployed by the Red Cross to New York City following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is a mental health professional and the Disaster Mental Health Lead for the CNY Region. Following 9/11, Vince spent two weeks in New York City working near Ground Zero at “Kitchen 2,” which served as an outpost for supplies and a resting place for first responders who were searching for victims. “I was about as close as you can get without being in the rubble,” Vince said.
Carol, who’s also a mental health professional and a Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer, was inspired to join the Red Cross after the 2001 attacks. “I wanted to be ready the next time someone needed my help,” Carol said.
Vince, Carol and the other Red Cross mental health volunteers were asked to be at the site for the first week, when the Memorial and Museum was open to the families of victims, survivors, rescue workers and first responders before it became accessible to the general public.
“There was a carton of Kleenex packages with the Red Cross logo on them in our break room, and we kept them in the pockets of our vests,” Carol said. “Sometimes, it was a good introduction to someone we would talk with, just a physical comfort we could offer.”
The National September 11 Memorial is a tribute of remembrance and honor to the nearly 3,000 people killed in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center site, near Shanksville, Pa., and at the Pentagon. It also commemorates the six people killed in the World Trade Center bombing in February 1993.
CNY Region Communications Officer Matt Michael asked Vince and Carol to describe their experiences in New York:
I felt honored to be at the 9/11 museum opening. I was there three days following the attacks on the World Trade Center, and I was happy to be back to see it come full circle.
The mood was that of a wake. There was sadness, tears, and reverence. There was also story-sharing and laughter. Although the families, survivors, rescuers, recovery workers and the community had more than 12 years to work on their grief, one mother said, as she cried, “Seeing the picture (of her deceased son on a wall in the In Memoriam room) is powerful.”
Other family used words such as “healing,” “closure,” and “awesome” (re: the museum itself).
Although families were visibly shaken and tearful, most came in groups and supported each other, requiring no DMH (Disaster Mental Health) intervention. Their reaction was normal given their loss, impact on their lives, and the setting.
One woman came up to me asking what the Red Cross was doing there. I told her we were there to provide emotional and/or grief support. She then told me of her experience with recovery and sought validation and other "tips" she could use, which I gladly provided.
I was asked to go to New York City to provide mental health support during the first week of the museum’s opening, by invitation for families of victims, survivors, rescue workers and first responders. The Red Cross volunteers were there to talk with visitors, hear their stories, and generally help provide a positive experience for all. We were also there to support the staff, which worked long shifts and therefore had prolonged exposure to the material.
I was most impressed by the strong bonds of the rescue workers. They often wore their fire department or police insignia, uniforms or T-shirts. Some saw others they knew, and some began conversations with those they had not known previously, but with whom they felt a strong bond because of 9/11 and their experiences. One young man told me he was so grateful for this week to be able to process the trauma with others he knew had similar experiences, because he would not have been able to go when the museum would be filled with tourists. This helped me appreciate the sensitive planning by the museum administration to allow time for these heroes and heroines and those who carry heavy burdens of loss.
One family asked me where they might find an item they donated to the museum, and told me the story of their idea and the creation of their project. The museum has 12,000 items archived, of which about 800 are on display at this time. So many individuals wanted to do something to express their support and grieve losses in their own way. Some made quilts, teachers had classes write letters, others created music or artwork or wrote letters or even books chronicling the aftermath in individual lives, such as firefighter Dennis Smith’s “A Decade of Hope.” The Flag of Remembrance quilt that hangs across a museum wall is a massive 27-by-20-foot wide and includes images of victims that had been photo-transferred onto fabric, naming each flight, and listing each piece of fire and rescue equipment that was lost. Reading and processing such information is poignant in itself, yet knowing that so many people poured so much love and caring into this quilt helps soften th e rough edges.
The museum is deep underground, and the last escalator takes a visitor slowly back up. Among the music played there is “Give Us Hope,” sung by a children’s choir, which is about connections as we seek to believe in a brighter future. It also tells the mission of the Red Cross volunteer:
Give us hope, my voice is calling
Can you see? Look in my eyes
Can you feel?
My hand is reaching . . .
To learn more about the 9/11 Memorial, click here.