Something that will never go away: Two Red Cross responders on the 20th anniversary of 9-11

By Tim Poe, American Red Cross volunteer

For those of us old enough to remember, the September 11 terrorist attacks have left a lasting impression. This is especially true for two American Red Cross staff members deployed following the attacks: Debbie Chitester, disaster program manager for Greater Akron and Mahoning Valley, and John Gareis, regional manager, Disaster Preparedness, Northern Ohio Region. Debbie was in New York placing volunteers where they were needed, mostly to respite centers near Ground Zero. John was across the river in New Jersey assisting those impacted. I spoke with both about their experiences.

During our discussions, clear memories vividly emerged. John recalled photographs of those missing posted everywhere as loved ones searched. Smoke rising from the rubble when the wind was still. A woman, covered in soot after escaping one of the towers, using a magazine cover photo taken of her as identification. Hearing Ray Charles perform “America the Beautiful.”

September 12, 2001. New York City, New York. The day after the World Trade Center collapse, an American Red Cross disaster worker joins rescuers at Ground Zero. Photo by Daniel Cima/American Red Cross

Debbie remembered people from all walks of life volunteering to help. Being able to see and hear people with flags and signs thanking the Red Cross and others as she traveled to the volunteer processing center each day.

Both recalled the concern of their families, as at the time much was unknown, including whether there would be further attacks. But they focused on their jobs. How nearly everyone had either been deeply affected or was close to someone who was (not more than “two degrees of separation,” as Debbie put it).

Both also recalled how many sought to help any way they could, including here in Northern Ohio. While they saw the effects of a terrorist attack firsthand, they mostly spoke of the resilience and good they witnessed.

After news of the attacks, Debbie and John immediately responded. Debbie, then a disaster specialist, returned to the Cleveland office. While John, then the Wayne County chapter executive, was at a first aid station at the Wayne County Fair.

They saw Ohioans quickly respond. At the fair, 4-H children donated proceeds from animal auctions, over $30,000, to the Red Cross. Blood donors also responded. The Wooster office alone processed about 300 pints of blood the Saturday following the attacks. People in Akron donated a fire engine, The J.M. Smucker Company sent trucks filled with sandwiches, and several Red Cross volunteers and staff members deployed.

When commercial flights resumed, both Debbie and John deployed to New York for three weeks.

At the volunteer processing center, Debbie met people from the world over coming to help. They included chefs, teams from Microsoft and IBM, businesspeople, cabbies, stagehands, celebrities who did not publicize their involvement, and two French men who had been on a backpacking trip, all doing whatever was needed. So many, in fact, that the volunteer processing center operated 24 hours a day.

Across the river, John assisted those directly impacted and recalled different ways they dealt with the events. Some were methodical, others clearly traumatized. He worked with each, listening, caring, helping. The Red Cross also learned lessons still in use today, such as providing more flexible financial assistance.

Both emphasized the need to remember those we do not talk about enough. While those in the World Trade Center and firefighters are rightly remembered, we mustn’t forget those in the Pentagon, those who sacrificed themselves to save others on Flight 93, nor those in surrounding areas.

Even with their decades of Red Cross experience, Debbie’s and John’s post-9/11 experience remains with them. Both are grateful they were able to help and remarked that, while the scale may be different, the core mission, to alleviate human suffering, remains the same.

As Debbie put it, the post 9/11 deployment will always be a part of her life. “The Red Cross was there,” she said. “We did the job, and it is something that will never go away.”

Volunteers and blood donors are currently needed. If you would like to volunteer, visit this link. To give blood, click here.

Edited by Glenda Bogar, American Rd Cross volunteer

To learn more about the Red Cross’ response following September 11, please read the following previous blog articles of reflection and remembrance:

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