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A Day of Terror, A Lifetime of Recovery
A Washington, D.C. paralegal shares her Sept. 11 volunteer experience.
By Lori Thompson
January/February 2002 Issue

Like everyone else, Sept. 11 was a day that changed my life forever. I went to work early, arriving at 6 a.m., and parked near the White House. With a long list of tasks to complete by the end of the day, I brought in several CDs and my headphones so I could block out the noise once people started arriving about 8:30 a.m.

The activity in the hallways became gradually louder and my co-workers were actively moving in and out of offices. Frustrated with the increasing noise, I finally removed my headphones and walked into an attorney’s office for a break. She was watching CNN on our new IPTV software and we watched in horror as CNN reported on what had taken place in New York City. Another attorney ran in and reported that he had been upstairs on the balcony outside and seen the smoke bellowing from the Pentagon. About the same time, a newly arrived co-worker reported watching the employees at the White House being evacuated. We moved to another part of our building and could see the increased police and Secret Service activity on 17th Street. We were all trying to speculate about what could have happened at the White House to cause the evacuation. Then at 10:20 a.m., we were told to evacuate the building immediately.

I live between National Airport and the Pentagon and wondered how I would get home as the news reported the closing of almost every street that I could use. A commute that usually takes 20 to 30 minutes took over three hours. The full impact of what had happened didn’t hit me until I started to drive South on Glebe Road from Arlington, Va. Traffic was at a stand still as many drivers were standing near their cars. I watched in disbelief as ambulance after ambulance tried to work their way from the Pentagon, across Glebe Road, and on to the Northern Virginia hospitals. No one was shouting or honking their car horns in frustration at the lack of movement. Black smoke could be clearly viewed above the Pentagon. Drivers around me were crying. Everyone had their radio stations tuned to the local news and we were all hoping that what we saw and heard was not real. When I finally arrived home, several of my neighbors were talking in the parking lot and we drove to a local hospital and give blood. We organized a caravan of over 20 people and were lucky to be among the first arrivals. We all waited until everyone had given blood and then made the return drive home.

Reaching Out
I returned to work the next day, but like many of my co-workers, I couldn’t focus on anything that had been important prior to the events of Sept. 11. I had worked to organize pro bono opportunities for local paralegals for more than eight years and I wanted to help. I made telephone calls to get details about local volunteer needs. Reaching anyone by telephone was extremely frustrating and telephone lines rang busy for hours. I was flooded with e-mails from local government paralegals and members of my pro bono committee requesting information about how they could get involved. Like me, everyone wanted to help, but had no idea what to do.

The hours seemed to go by quickly and being surrounded by people was extremely helpful. Time at home was quiet. I was focused on watching the news and hoping that my four friends had somehow survived the devastation at the Pentagon. In times of local and national tragedy, it’s difficult for the average person without medical training or other rescue skills to find an outlet for grief. By Thursday night, I could no longer stay home watching the news and worrying about my friends. I made my way to a local hotel being used by the Red Cross and volunteered my services. There were people everywhere and we made sandwiches, packing boxed lunches and packing breakfast items. The American flag was proudly affixed to the outside packaging and volunteers transported the food to the respite centers, soon to be named "Camp Unity," that included self-contained canteen kitchens that provided approximately 200 meals an hour and other refreshments to recovery personnel.

Nothing that had been shown in the news did justice to the actual scene. The rescue workers were covered in soot and looked exhausted. All the volunteers took time to talk and provide comfort to the rescue workers. The experience was heartbreaking and telling anyone that it would be "all right" seemed so trivial. It was comforting to have so many people willing to openly show their emotions without fear of what someone might think. By the time many of the volunteers left the site, the sun began to rise. Unfortunately, it was hard to believe a new day was beginning when the sky was still painted with black smoke.

I couldn’t turn the radio on in my car as I drove from Arlington to Alexandria and drove home in silence. I had less than two hours to get home and report for work, but my thoughts were with the rescue workers and volunteers at the site. Everything else seemed to be a waste of time and energy.

Several of my friends met on Sept. 19 to enter the apartment of two missing friends who worked at the Pentagon to collect DNA samples. Later that evening, we gathered at the public memorial near the Pentagon where we left flowers for our missing friends. The view of what had been an empty hill near a local cemetery was overwhelming. Local citizens left flowers, cards, poems, flags, and personal items in memory of those who had lost their lives just a short distance away. Reading the poems and looking at the personal items left behind was painful. I remember a photograph of a pretty blonde woman that was taped to a case of diet coke. Photograph after photograph quickly brought the tragedy close to home. The news had first reported the possibility of 800 people being killed at the Pentagon. Even as the total loss of life decreased significantly, the loss of even one life was substantial.

Press On
I met so many amazing people during what I have called my four weeks of volunteer frenzy. I was not spending much time sleeping; I spent my days helping the Salvation Army and my nights volunteering at the Red Cross. I reported to the Salvation Army warehouse on Friday, Sept. 21 and offered my services. I had no idea what I was walking into and hoped that they would not turn me away.

Sue greeted me and I was under the impression that she was a seasoned Salvation Army employee. She was responsible for volunteer orientation and had answers for every question raised. I soon found out Sue was just another volunteer who had made the decision to show up and offer her services. She had moved to Washington, D.C. from Wisconsin and had only been in the area for three weeks. She and her husband had made the decision to park near the Pentagon and go sight seeing in on Sept. 11.

Sue asked me to take over the command center, which included being responsible for the phones, requests from the Pentagon, and other communication tasks. Thousands of pounds of dog food and other items had been donated for the rescue dogs working at the Pentagon site. The dogs didn’t eat commercial food and I quickly became the expert in dog food distribution. Several volunteers made a list of the local animal shelters and proceeded to contact organizations that would benefit from such an outpouring of pet supplies.

Robin was another volunteer that just happened to be driving by the Pentagon when the plane hit. In what she describes as a total panic, she abandoned her car and jumped into a ditch to hide. Another motorist stopped to pick her up and several other pedestrians to get them out of the area. She was one of many motorists that had abandoned their vehicles and she had to wait several days for the FBI to contact her about retrieving her car. She soon took over the massive organization of supplies at the warehouse and proudly announced that she had called a meeting in "water" because no one was organizing anything the same way. Carlos lived in Annapolis, Md., and could no longer stay home and just watch the news. He called a friend after hearing that the Salvation Army needed milk cartons and they stopped at almost every gas station on their drive from Annapolis to Arlington, Va. In addition to organizing the warehouse with sufficient trash receptacles, he took the time to load a cart with cold water, juice and soda that he moved around to where the volunteers were working.

There are no sufficient words to describe the Salvation Army warehouse. Local stores, community members and groups went beyond the call of duty when asked to provide items that would help the relief efforts. Semi-truck after semi-truck would just show up and the volunteers would have to unload the trucks, open all boxes, and move the items to specific area for additional organization. The requests from the Pentagon were very specific. They didn’t just call and ask for juice. They wanted apple juice or another specific item that had to be quickly located, moved to the loading dock, and packed onto a truck for delivery. The volunteers made this all move smoothly thanks to their attention to detail. So many local restaurants donated food for the volunteers, including a restaurant in Arkansas that prepared catfish for the volunteers one evening.

After a long day with the Salvation Army that started at 7 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 22, I left the warehouse about 7:30 p.m. to report to the Arlington Red Cross office for a 8 p.m. to midnight shift. Around midnight, most of the Red Cross staff went home and I stayed to work with a woman who was visiting from Australia. She was visiting friends who were asked to travel to New York City due to their telecommunication skills. She decided to volunteer her time with the Red Cross and encouraged me to work with her through the night. We stocked the canteen and drove the Red Cross van to the local hotels to retrieve Red Cross staff that were assigned to the Pentagon site. I was losing my volunteer spirit close to 7 a.m. Sunday when I realized that I would have about 90 minutes to get home, change my clothes, and meet local paralegals for another volunteer commitment, helping with pre-registration for the Oct. 6 AIDS Walk.

Help from the Paralegal Community
The response from local paralegals continued to support the belief that paralegals are a vital member of the legal community providing help to those in need. One local paralegal helped the Red Cross by volunteering near the Pentagon City Mall to collect donations. I am extremely grateful that so many local paralegals came forward to help when asked. I know that providing my limited skills to the rescue effort was of great comfort during such a difficult time that had hit so close to home. I strongly felt that this was the least that I could do for so many rescue workers that had placed themselves in harms way to help those in need and feel that my life has been changed forever. The past four weeks have been focused on extreme sadness, but there were also times of great humor. I became extremely close to 10 volunteers at the Salvation Army site who had put their lives on hold to help the Salvation Army provide support to the rescue workers at the Pentagon. Personally, the volunteers provided me support when I was overcome by emotion thinking about my friends and we laughed about needing some type of volunteer detoxification after spending so much of our time volunteering. We made a vow to offer our services, as a group, to local organizations. I also strongly feel anyone who didn’t get involved has missed a life changing experience. I can’t imagine my life without the experiences since Sept. 11 and my new volunteer friends. Many of us have registered to attend the Red Cross volunteer orientation on Oct. 20 to be trained as disaster services specialists. We also laughed about not knowing the words to many of our national patriotic songs. This will have to be a goal for another day.

Lori Thompson is a paralegal specialist for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in Washington, D.C. Thompson is the Chair of the Pro Bono Publico Committee for the National Capital Area Paralegal Association and has been actively involved in pro bono in the D.C. Metropolitan area. Thompson has received numerous pro bono awards from bar and paralegal associations.

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