By Carl Manning
American Red Cross
Melissa Friel figured Sept. 11, 2001 would be just another day as the Red Cross chapter manager in Jefferson City, Missouri. As she got ready for work, she listened to the radio and heard reports of aircraft crashing into the World Trade Center in New York City.
She immediately realized the Red Cross would be involved in the recovery efforts. For nearly three months, she oversaw deployment operations at the chapter. On December 3, she began a month-long deployment to New York, specifically choosing to go then so volunteers who already were there could go home and be with their families for the holidays.
Melissa, who now works at the State Emergency Management Agency in Jefferson City, was asked to recount her deployment. What follows is a Question and Answer session with her, edited for length.
What was Sept. 11 like at the Red Cross chapter?
That day was a blur. We had hundreds of phone calls; my favorite was from a local man. He told me his pick-up truck was gassed up and he was ready to go, where should he report. Folks wanted to do one of three things: They wanted to go help/volunteer to respond to New York or the Pentagon; they wanted to donate blood or they wanted to donate money to help those impacted by these horrific attacks.
What was your initial reaction when you arrived in New York City, nearly three months after the attacks?
Riding the shuttle from the airport into NYC was a surreal experience. There were armed soldiers at the entrance of the tunnels leading into the city. The shuttle driver told us there was no easy route to get around the city because there were so many roads blocked off due to the attacks. But what struck me were the lights and smoke illuminating Ground Zero. Everywhere you travelled around the city, the lights were visible like a beacon drawing you to it.
What was your Red Cross assignment there?
When I deployed I chose to go out in the Mass Care function so when I arrived at HQ I was directed to the Mass Care group. While waiting for my assignment it was awesome to run into and spend time with my fellow Red Crossers out of Missouri. I received my first assignment, spending the next few weeks at the Staten Island Landfill where the first thing we had to do was get out of the van while the armed security checked inside it to ensure there were no news media trying to sneak onto the site.
What was happening at the landfill?
It had closed in March 2001 because it was full. It was reopened to serve as the location where debris from the World Trade Center was barged and unloaded. The responders were sorting the debris by hand and with rakes to locate human remains as well as personal effects from those who perished. When what appeared to be human remains or personal effects were found, the responder would respectfully take the item to the forensic pathologist on site to verify if it indeed were human remains. It was my understanding that once identified as human remains, the pathologist would send it in for DNA testing so that the loved ones of those who died could follow their burial or death rituals.
What was you first impression at the landfill?
When you drove into the site, you passed through the first responder vehicle grave yard, there were smashed fire trucks, police cars and ambulances destroyed when the Twin Towers fell. Every time I stepped out of the Red Cross vehicle to replenish the rest areas, I felt as if I was walking on sacred ground where the remains of every day citizens and first responders who perished on that fateful day were currently resting. Needless to say it was a sobering and somber experience. We were informed that the whole site was a crime scene as well as a hazardous materials site and if we dropped something on the ground, we were not to pick it up. We were issued respirators and Tyvek protective suits and sent on our way.
What was the Red Cross role at the landfill?
The Red Cross ran what was called “The Hilltop Café” on top of a hill about 75 feet from where they were sorting debris, hence the name. This was a huge yurt type structure that was built to get the responders out of the December cold so they could eat, hydrate and just take a break. As this was a closed landfill everything had to be brought or built on site. The meals we provided were cooked offsite and picked up by a Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicle. Then my fellow Red Crossers served the meals to the responders. My job was to serve as part of the team making sure the meals were picked up and brought back to the site, making sure there were drinks and snacks for the responders in the Hilltop Café and at the rest sites in the debris sorting area.
What was it like inside the Hilltop Café?
The Red Cross team and the first responders working the landfill became like family. As the responders came into the Hilltop Café, they were greeted by Red Crossers. Our mental health professionals talked to the responders as they ate and rested. Our Red Cross team was acutely attuned to the mood of the responders. It was palpable. You could see it in their eyes, hear it in their voices. The NYC responders volunteered for this unspeakable duty. Each and every one of them knew someone who had died that day. How they chose to honor those who had perished was by coming to a closed landfill and sorting through hundreds of thousands of yards of debris in the hopes of that they could help give closure to the families who lost loved ones.
What was it like to leave the Hilltop Café?
Two weeks into the deployment, we were told that the Red Cross would be ending its service at the landfill and that another NGO would be taking our place as the mayor wanted to give every NGO the opportunity to assist at the landfill. To say we were devastated would be an understatement. For us Red Crossers, it was like we were deserting our family, especially because our mission at the landfill would be ending a couple of days before Christmas. As we were packing up our Red Cross equipment that last night at the Hilltop Café, one of the firefighters picked up an orange cone and used it as a megaphone, to sing to us as we left the building, making up new words to the closing theme of the Mickey Mouse Club Show. “Now it’s time to say good bye to all our Red Cross family, Red Cross family, Red Cross…” and we left the landfill with tears in our eyes and hoping that we had made the horrific job that the responders were having to do a little easier and less burdensome.
What was your next assignment?
My next two weeks would be spent a few blocks from Ground Zero, helping to open up a distribution site for those who lived around Ground Zero. We were based in a pharmacy on Wall Street that had been closed several years. We prepared the store where we would hand out HEPA air purifiers and HEPA vacuums to those living around Ground Zero because the pile was still on fire and the air was terrible to breath and their apartments had ash in them.
What were your thoughts about visiting the viewing platforms overlooking Ground Zero?
The first thing you notice when you arrive in the Ground Zero area are the pop-up memorials to those who died. There were several around the area. They contained missing person’s fliers, letters to those lost, pictures who those died, stuffed animals, flowers, tokens of appreciation. Everyone who stopped at these pop-up memorials left with tears in their eyes. The grief and pain shared by the loved ones of those who died was profound and intense. As I made my way up to the Ground Zero family viewing platform with others, it was eerily quiet, no one spoke. This time I felt like I was viewing sacred ground.
Did your 9/11 deployment change how you feel about helping others?
It didn’t change how I feel about helping others, just reinforced that working and volunteering with the Red Cross was one of the best ways that I could make a difference in the lives of those impacted by man-made and natural disasters.
What was the most memorable part about being there?
Visiting the pop-up memorials around Ground Zero, the NYC first responders I worked with daily. The Red Crossers I had the honor serving with. The pile of personal effects at the landfill that contained a stuffed yellow duck, a Bible, shoes and other personal items.
Have you been back to the Ground Zero area since then?
In 2016, I had the opportunity to visit the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, the first time to be back the New York City since my deployment. It was extremely emotional; lots of bad and good memories came flooding back. Back in my hotel room on the 56th floor, a malfunctioning fire alarm went off at 2 a.m. I jumped out of bed and got dressed while deciding whether to go up to the roof or down the stairs. And I could not help but thinking about the folks in the World Trade Center having to make those exact decisions.