Every year on September 11 we reflect on that fateful day in 2001 and on the trying weeks, months and years that followed. We do so to honor those we lost, to comfort those still grieving and to thank those who gave of themselves to help us heal.
Just as our nation was forever changed, so was the Red Cross. Our organization’s relief effort—in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Shanksville, Pa.— was one of the largest in our organization’s history. The response continued for years after the attacks and involved more than 57,000 volunteers and employees from across the country.
No one place was affected as profoundly as our great city and no Red Cross chapter was as deeply impacted than Greater New York; we were at the epicenter of the relief effort. Within moments of the first plane striking the North Tower, teams of Greater Red Cross staff sprang into action to help.
Here is their story:
Minutes after the first
plane struck the North Tower, Greater New York Senior Director of
Emergency Services Virginia Mewborn and Assistant Director of Operations
Max Green left the chapter’s headquarters on Amsterdam Avenue in
Manhattan to respond to what they then thought was a small plane hitting
the World Trade Center.
Green and Mewborn were planning to
evaluate the situation to see how the Red Cross could best support
emergency personnel at the scene. On the drive down, Green said he felt
that if the building were evacuated early, “…it would have been a
long-term canteen operation, where we would support emergency workers.”
they drove, Virginia paged Red Cross Field Operations Supervisor Luis
Avila and asked him to join them. Avila, who was in Queens that morning
working a second job, could see the smoke from the North Tower from his
location. He told his boss he was leaving, and in fact, never returned
to that job. As he left, Avila watched in disbelief as the second plane
banked and hit the South Tower.
Mewborn and Green, in their car,
began to realize that they had not understood the scope of this
incident. “As you got onto the West Side Highway you could see the
smoke,” said Green. “My heart fluttered. I looked up at it, saying
‘This, this looks a lot bigger than what I thought it was.’”
two parked on West Street, south of Chambers and walked towards the
World Financial Center (WFC). They hoped to find a command group—people
from partner agencies like the Office of Emergency Management (OEM), who
would be coordinating this disaster response with the Red Cross.
her cell phone wasn’t working, Mewborn borrowed a phone at a shoe
repair store to call headquarters. Greater NY Red Cross CEO Bob Bender
told her four things: a second plane had hit, they were dealing with a
terrorist attack, Red Cross would set up a Respite Center downtown for
survivors and first responders, and he’d sent an Emergency Response
Vehicle (ERV) down with a Red Cross disaster responder, Kemagne Theagne,
to meet them.
Mewborn and Green found a command post on West
Street, right across from the Twin Towers. That’s when they saw a
horrific sight—people jumping from the upper stories of the Trade
Center. They decided they should not get closer; they should in fact
return to the chapter to organize the Red Cross response from there.
Avila had arrived in lower Manhattan and parked on West and Vesey.
“When we get to a scene,” he said, “the first person with a vehicle
tries to get as close as they can.” He continued on foot to 7 World
Trade, where OEM’s offices were located. “I saw debris everywhere, I was
wading through rubble,” he said. As he began to follow a group of fire
chiefs, the “haunting scenes” around him convinced Avila he should
leave. He turned right to regroup with Green and Mewborn, and the first
responders turned left, towards the Towers. Avila later learned they had
As Avila approached the WFC he saw Mewborn and Green,
and they walked inside together. “We made a deal that we were going to
stay together from that point on,” he said, “that we were going to take
care of one another.” Avila was able to contact his wife and let her
know he was alright, then the line went dead. “What felt like an
earthquake” shook the building. It was the North Tower coming down, but
they didn’t know that. They thought the WFC was collapsing on top of
them. Suddenly, the building’s windows exploded. Avila grabbed Mewborn
and Green. They ran, along with hundreds of others, to the West Side
Highway, zigzagging their way back to Green’s car.
Kemagne Theagne, who had rushed down from chapter headquarters in an
ERV, was on Church Street, directly in front of the Towers, trying to
find the Red Cross staging area for the relief operation he believed
Mewborn, Green and Avila were mounting. He had just gotten out of the
ERV to help a woman who had fallen, when he heard, “Pop, pop, pop, pop,
pop.” He looked up and saw the North Tower coming down, floor by
floor. “I just froze; I couldn't believe this was happening.”
people ran out of the lobby towards Theagne, a man grabbed him. The two
ran together, holding one another, towards a staircase leading into a
subway station with a locked gate. They were now engulfed by choking
soot and debris. Theagne tried calling his three colleagues, but his
Nextel radio was dead. He said to himself, “I hope, I hope, I hope they
His colleagues were on their way back to HQ. As they
drove, they spotted a man in Red Cross gear they thought was Theagne.
They stopped and pulled him into the car, only to realize that it was
responder Barry Crumbley, who had traveled to the site on his own to
find his wife, who worked in one of the Towers. (She made it out
Theagne spent the next 45 minutes at the foot of the
staircase, “just waiting,” trying to breathe, until he saw some light
trying to break through the smoke. “We used that little bit of sunlight
to guide us out.” They climbed up the stairs and ran.
washing himself off at a nearby deli along with dozens of others,
Theagne made his way back to the ERV. “I said to myself, ‘I got to get
this vehicle out of here.’” He slowly made his way out of the site in
the dust-covered ERV, “driving through the spider web what was the
windshield.” When he finally arrived uptown, covered in dust and ash, no
one could believe he had brought the ERV back.
Mewborn, Green and
Avila had already returned, also covered in soot from head to toe. “I
don't know if [our colleagues] thought we were dead or they were seeing a
ghost,” said Avila. “All I remember saying is give me water… I drank
about two liters as quick as I could.”
giving themselves a few moments to wash up and regroup, they
remobilized with the rest of the Red Cross team. “After we realized
everybody was okay, we needed to make sure that we had supplies down
there,” said Avila.
They needed to get the canteen trucks (the
ERVs), down to the site as quickly as possible to replenish the water
for the survivors, firefighters and other emergency personnel.
“Preparations had already begun when we were downtown,” Avila said, “but
whatever needed to be finished we continued to do.”
creating a plan to send caseworkers to Penn Station, Grand Central
Station and the Port Authority, to position ERVs on the West Side
Highway and the FDR Drive, and to get ready to set up a relief operation
at the Brooklyn Chapter.
“And we knew that help was on the way,”
said Mewborn. Red Crossers were coming from upstate New York and
National Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C. There were also
lines of people inside Greater NY Red Cross headquarters, waiting to
volunteer, give blood or donate money.
“In those first 12, 24,
36, 48 hours,” Mewborn said, “we registered thousands of volunteers and
provided service to thousands of people in New York. We did it well, and
we started the platform of how we were going to move forward.”