Where Were You? One Volunteer's 9/11 Red Cross Experience

When the man in the black suit walked up, President George Bush paused in his reading of “The Pet Goat” and even the second graders could tell that something was gravely wrong. That class in Sarasota witnessed the president’s reaction to the first attack onUS soil since the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Like the president, Red Cross disaster volunteer Colleen Shillington was in Sarasota that morning visiting her daughter, and like the president she was shocked. It took Colleen a few days to get back to Columbus, “There were no planes allowed to take off. Two days later, when I did get to fly out, there were guards at the airport with machine guns.”    

Colleen was one of many in the first wave of response to the disaster. American Red Cross disaster relief workers from all over the United States came to Manhattan in droves. Upon her arrival, Colleen realized that the scope of the disaster was massive and that the responders would have to be creative. “Our first operation was set up inside a Bally Total Fitness. We were using weight benches as desks to do our registration paperwork. In disaster situations you have to improvise, use what you’ve got in front of you.”

Red Cross workers observe the aftermath.

Eventually Colleen was moved to a more permanent location on Canal Street and set in charge of registration. She remembers how many people there were from every age and background. “For some of the clients we needed interpreters, we were very close to New York’s China Town and some didn’t speak English.”  

One of the most remarkable parts of Colleen’s time in New York was the way that the citizens banded together. “Right next to canal street service center there was a restaurant run by a guy named Tony. He opened the doors, took money out of his own pocket, and just started feeding people.”  Colleen says there were many more just like Tony, residents of Manhattan who were ready to give whatever they could to help their neighbors and the relief workers. “The people who resided there constantly wanted to help. People saw the need and they just pitched in. They were really trying to take care of us volunteers.”  

57,434 Red Cross employees and volunteers from all 50 states were assigned to disaster relief operations around the nation, especially in Manhattan and the sites of the other two attacks. Those volunteers were from all over the country, but they were all there for the same reasons: “Everyone left their egos at home; they were about business and really trying to make things somewhat better for those people,” says Colleen.  

Teams like the one Colleen worked with spent the days and weeks following the disaster helping the people of New York with immediate needs like food, clothing, shelter, and financial assistance. She remembers the difference Red Cross assistance made to those who came to the service sites: “There were a lot of tears, a lot of people leaving in gratitude. You could see by people’s walk and stances; when they first came in their heads were hung low—when they left there was a little more perk in their step, it seemed like they could see a future.”

Over the course of the relief efforts, the American Red Cross served 14,113,185 meals and snacks, opened 60 shelters for 3554 families, and deployed 292 Emergency Response Vehicles.

Learn more about the Red Cross response to 9-11 here or become a Red Cross Disaster Action Volunteer like Colleen.

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