Reflections on the Day the Towers Fell
For days after fighter jets were scrambled up the Potomac River, and after the reality of the tragedy had set in, the cracked portrait window of Lt. Col. Bollwahn's office bore the sole, visible memory of the 9/11 tragedy at The Salvation Army's national headquarters.
As many were reporting to work that Tuesday morning, their radio stations had begun relaying the horrific news: a commercial airliner had hit one of the twin towers in New York; then a second into the other. In disbelief, many Salvation Army national headquarters employees huddled around televisions watching the story unfold; the thick silence peppered with the sonic booms of jets and the whirring of sirens as emergency vehicles zoomed past their Alexandria, Virginia, location.
And then, as another jet plowed into the side of the Pentagon, their silent shock was replaced with palpable fear and concern. They could hear the impact and sense the nearing danger.
While many in the nation, and indeed the world became immobilized as details of the disaster began to be pieced together, The Salvation Army was already at work.
The Salvation Army was the first relief agency to reach Ground Zero, reporting within a half-hour of the first plane crash at the World Trade Center site.
Major Evelyn Chavez was one of Army's many officers to serve at Ground Zero. She made the trip from San Francisco, California, to relieve the first shift of first responders who had been at the site since the planes hit. Her tour began in late November. She worked the midnight shift for weeks and kept a journal of the experience.
The workers, NYPD, FDNY are all looking tenuously at the "new shift". They are so amazed that we would come so far to help. I'm amazed at their stamina and sense of purpose. To stand at the edge of ground zero is indescribable. The television really minimizes and miniaturizes what is really here. It's like when you look at the Grand Canyon and it is bigger than life. So is this, except it's death. There are thousands of stories. When the rain started it got cold and wet. I went to the edge of the site to hand out ponchos. I never get used to the way our "little red shield" allows entrance to places. It is the symbol of acceptance. I go through 7 police check points to get into ground zero. They see the shield and wave me on. It is truly a symbol blessed by God.
With its mobile canteens and counselors, 39,000 Salvation Army officers, volunteers and staff provided assistance during the many months following the attacks, totaling 1 million volunteer hours.
Major Chavez asks:
"Where is God in this?" An interesting observation from the site is the companies helping with the clean up. Angel Water supplies our fresh water and is the water used in the pit to put out the fires that constantly flare up. Trinity Construction is one of the companies working and Grace Trucking Company hauls out the melted, twisted iron. TSA has three sites at ground zero. Site 3 where I work is on Trinity Street. Coincidences? Maybe, but I don't think so, in fact, I think God's hand is spread wide at that site.
In the course of the relief effort, dubbed "Operation Compassion Under Fire," The Salvation Army was granted full control of the feeding operation at Ground Zero and also distributed other essential items to relief workers. In that time, 3.2 million meals were served. But, perhaps most importantly, Salvation Army counselors provided innumerable hours of emotional and spiritual support to rescue and recovery workers working under incredibly difficult conditions. Major Chavez shares another thought from her day.
I prayed every day that I would be a blessing to at least one person. My day was over. I had put on my jacket. Cynthia walked in and asked if she could have one of the small New Testaments we had on the table. I told her to help herself to anything there. She picked up the small yellow Daily Strength book. I told her it was my favorite. She started to cry. Her daughter, Tonyell, is "missing." She still has hope that Tonyell is alive-maybe in a homeless shelter with amnesia. I had read the bio earlier on Tonyell. I recognized her as soon as her mom showed me her picture. She was 25. She was working on the floor the first plane hit. Cynthia thinks maybe she had gone down to another floor for something. Cynthia is a Christian. I shared Psalms 61:2,3 with her...When my heart is overwhelmed, lead me to the Rock that is higher than I. She knew the verses by heart also. We prayed together. I need to stay in touch. I got her phone number. One of the guys asked how I could "leave them." I told him my body had to go home but my heart will be in the pit at ground zero with the "graveyard" shift-although, every shift there is a "graveyard" shift in the pit of ground zero.
The Salvation Army's service to relief workers at the WTC site stretched to over 9 months; ending only when operations at Ground Zero officially concluded in May, 2002.
In response to the September 11 terrorist attacks, The Salvation Army received $90 million in donations. And even after the last truck emblazoned with a Red Shield had long left Ground Zero, for those who served and ministered, the spiritual connection continues.
Major Chavez writes in her journal:
The Army had a presence in this chaos from the very beginning and as time passed we continued to be there offering the ministry of presence that was so important. I am continually amazed how the red shield gives us entry and trust. For me the experience of being at Ground Zero is one I will never forget. The people, the scene, the conversations, and the opportunity to pray and share with people was beyond any comprehension I would have ever thought would be a part of my Salvation Army officership. Yet, God was faithful and equipped me to complete the task. As an officer at Ground Zero I was proud to be a part of The Salvation Army, the way we were accepted and the work we were doing. The workers-from law enforcement to steel workers were grateful that we were on site and expressed that often. Whenever I think of Ground Zero, one verse continues to accompany my thoughts: Psalm 61:2-3.
When my heart is overwhelmed;
Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For You have been a shelter for me,
A strong tower from the enemy.