The evening of 9/11 it was hard to take our eyes off of the television, it was hard but necessary to explain to our 8 year old son and 5 year old daughter what had happened in New York, and nearby at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania and that we did not know what would happen next.
In the Red Cross we are trained to prevent, prepare for and respond to emergencies so the adrenalin was rushing all evening and we were all ready to engage in the Red Cross response when we arrived at Red Cross Square the morning of 9/12.
The Volunteers, Youth and Nursing department was assigned to help with a large scale emergency Blood Drive being staged at Red Cross Square. We produced and distributed signs to direct volunteer blood donors, then headed over to the “E” Street building to get our assignments. A local radio station was in front of the building inviting everyone in Washington to come to Red Cross Square to give blood. An “ERV” (Emergency Response Vehicle) was in front of the building ready to give out snacks and drinks. A few dozen volunteer blood donors were lined up outside of the building and many more were queued up to register and weave their way upstairs to the second floor ball room where dozens of blood donation stations had been set up.
I was assigned to greet people at the end of the line, explaining what was happening and answering questions. Then the line started to get long turning onto the sidewalk. People from all walks of life were pouring in to Red Cross Square. The line become a hundred feet long, then a hundred yard long. My task changed from greeting to giving estimates of how many hours wait volunteer blood donors would have. We offered slips of paper were donors could give us their name and contact information to be contacted to come back when more space was available for donating. Some people signed up to come back another time. Others said, their companies had given them the day off and they would wait.
The line continued to grow longer. I saw some teachers from my daughter’s former pre-school; they saw how busy we were and offered to help with sharing water and snacks to the people in line. Some of our first spontaneous volunteers. I continued every two or three minutes to greet the new people at the end of the line to let them know what was going on. People continued to pour in, wanting to help in any way that they could, the line was several hundred feet long.
A group of Arab American businessmen joined the line – we want to show our support for America and the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. There were many foreign visitors who joined the line, many were tourists who spoke no English, like their American counterparts, they just wanted to help, to do something.
The line continued to grow now almost to the end of the long block, another large room at Red Cross Square was staffed with Blood collection medical staff, so now we had two long lines perhaps a thousand or more individuals waiting patiently, knowing that it would be many hours until they had their opportunity to donate.
We greeted members of airline flight crews who had been grounded when the FAA shut down the entire air traffic system, coming to donate blood in honor of the flight crews who had died in the four planes that crashed – it’s the least we can do. We saw steel benders, construction workers, government workers, parents, individuals from all walks of life, former fire fighters, police personnel, military, most willing to wait for hours and hours to donate blood.
I was greeting volunteers late in the afternoon as Red Cross CEO Bernadine Healy walked back from the White House, she greet the volunteer blood donors in the line and thanked them, “The President asked us to collect as much blood as we can since we do not know what will happen next.”
As we approached 6 pm, the blood collection team said that we needed to start closing down the line since they could not work past about 10 PM even with the dozens of relief staff that had been shipped in from other blood centers. We told the volunteers in line that they were not going to get in to donate, to try tomorrow or sign up on the slip of paper to get called back when the lines were less long over the next days and weeks. Most were now willing to go. But I remember one woman at the end of the line said, she would stay until the end to donate no matter what, she was a former member of the military and she was going to do her duty and donate blood. She waited 4 more hours and likely was just about the last individual to donate.
I finished my shift around 10:30 PM and called my family to let them I was on my way home. My wife asked if I would be safe walking to the Metro. I shared, that yes I would be safe knowing that there were members of the military with Humvees and automatic rifles at each intersection on my way to the Metro. I actually had to cross under police security table to exit Red Cross Square since we were located near the White House and the whole area was now a security zone.
It was an amazing experience to witness hundreds or over a thousand spontaneous volunteer blood donors, Americans, tourists, foreign nationals, all coming forward to help, to do what they could, to donate blood.