The Spirit of Service

by Helen Rubenstein
New York, New York, USA

Spirit of Service

At 7:40 a.m., September 12, 2001, I arrived at the American Red Cross (ARC) building in New York City. Already, scores of people milled around, including red-jacketed staff. I approached a friend from my days of teaching supervision at ARC and offered help. I was instantly put to work greeting those who’d come to volunteer their services. “I’ll carry rocks,” one man said. People approached by the hundreds, some shy, some chomping at the bit, all eager to do something — anything.

The ARC is adamant about not endangering volunteers. The day before, they had trained 3,000 volunteers in disaster-related work: clearing debris, helping families seeking loved ones, and assisting evacuated families. Three thousand people.

Soon we had to tell people that the training classes were full. They asked to donate blood. We sent them to Martin Luther King High School, the blood drive site. By 10 a.m., we had to tell people burning to do something, anything, “Come back tomorrow.”

One woman said her son had worked nine hours assisting firefighters to move rubble, and it was her turn. She wouldn’t leave. I sent her to a supervisor and later passed her busily working. I told a young man barely 20 years old that we’d call him back. He replied, “I came from New Hampshire.” With a Red Cross group? “No, I just came.” He got to help that day.

I was put to work answering phones.

A company called asking whether someone could accept a check today. “Yes!” Someone in Chicago had a truckload of produce in the NY area to donate. A pastor who worked disaster relief in Rwanda wanted to trauma-counsel disaster workers. “Come directly here.” A nurse with EMT training wanted to know where she was most needed. Medical personnel were being sent to Chelsea Piers.

By lunch, every form of comfort food known had been donated to feed the hundreds of volunteers and staff working at ARC headquarters. Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, peanut butter and jelly, cheese doodles, and chocolate chip cookies. Oh, look! There’s a can of water-packed tuna and a plate of spinach. Naaah. Not today.

I saw disaster workers return with haunted, glazed looks. They came for “debriefings” — a talk with a mental health professional about their experience working in a disaster.

I stood and ate, listening to TV and the conversation around me: “Let’s destroy their camps.”

“I don’t think killing more people will do anything to stop this.”

“What about the economy?”

“Who’ll fly?”

The talking heads on TV finally had something besides the trivial to talk about.

New Yorkers (who won’t wait in line five minutes for a restaurant) lined up to wait four to eight hours to donate blood. In the face of increasing danger from unstable buildings, workers returned again and again, searching, hoping for signs of life in the rubble. There were thousands of heroes that day. May the awe-inspiring spirit of all who helped that day resonate around the world.

(Editor’s Note: to donate to the American Red Cross New York chapter online, go to If that server is busy, mail it to ARC, 150 Amsterdam Ave, New York, NY 10023 USA, or call 800-514-5103. You can also donate online via Yahoo or, but beware of fraudulent donor sites that are trying to take advantage of your generosity. Please donate directly via sites you recognize. Sadly, there are fraudsters out there trying to take advantage of this tragedy.)

Originally published as HeroicStories #236 on Sept 17, 2001

1 thought on “The Spirit of Service”

  1. Another 9/11 story that many people are not aware of is ‘Boatlift’. On 9/11 about 500,000 people were evacuated in less than 9 hours from Lower Manhattan, many on private boats, everybody helped. There is an excellent short documentary narrated by Tom Hanks, you can google ‘Boatlift’, everyone should see it. I have nothing to gain from talking about this, I am just so very proud of this example of Americans being Americans, that day. I think sometimes we forget who we are, this film is a reminder. By the way, the 2nd largest evacuation in history was in 1940, Dunkirk, 338,000 people, and that took 9 days!


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