The air quality was so bad I coughed the entire time I was there

By Mary Brant, Regional Communications Manager

On September 11, 2001, clinical psychologist Donna Hastings arrived at her practice in Merrimack, New Hampshire at the usual hour and began seeing patients. She came out of her 10:30 a.m. patient session to find her staff white faced and in tears. That’s when she got the unimaginable news – two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center collapsing the Twin Towers.

Dr. Hastings continued to see scheduled patients throughout the day, getting updates from staff between appointments. In addition to her professional career, she had served as a Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Volunteer for nine years. At the end of that long, stressful workday she immediately went to her local Red Cross office to help answer calls. The phones never stopped ringing. Later that evening, the head of Red Cross Volunteer Services called to ask if she would go to New Jersey to help people trying to locate their missing family members.

Less than 24 hours after the attacks, Dr. Hastings was on her way to New Jersey. Her mission was to support the disaster response on the ground based out of the Tri-County Red Cross Chapter offices.  

Dr. Hastings learned that by nightfall on September 11th the Red Cross – working with volunteer partners – had fed and housed nearly 1,000 people. These were individuals who either worked in New Jersey or lived in Manhattan and could not return home due to bridge closures.

“When I arrived at my assigned site the feeling on the ground was pure chaos,” said Dr. Hastings. “I heard stories in those first days that I have never shared because they were so heartbreaking.”

She spent 19 days on the ground in New Jersey helping families of 9/11 victims. The air quality was still so bad she remembers coughing from the time she arrived.

The day after Christmas, 2001, Dr. Hastings deployed again to the Compassion Center at Liberty Park in New Jersey. Although busy, she found the environment less intense than her initial deployment. At this point the 9/11 disaster site was no longer a search and rescue mission, it was considered a recovery mission.

Dr. Hastings would deploy once more – this time for the opening of the 9/11 Memorial Museum for first responders and families of the deceased. The Red Cross had a team of Disaster Mental Health and Spiritual Care Workers on site. Working at the museum was a sobering experience, but it was also one of healing for many volunteers, bringing them full circle. Some had the opportunity to reconnect with families they had worked with immediately following the horrific events of September 11th.

“Everyone experienced some degree of trauma on September 11th whether they lost someone, were survivors themselves or watched it unfold on their television,” said Dr. Hastings. “Disasters affect everyone differently. Those of us who deploy for the Red Cross couldn’t do it without the support of family, friends and colleagues still at home.”

While 20 years have passed, as a nation we will always remember that day — as one of the worst days in U.S. history, but also one that brought out the very best of the American spirit.  Within minutes of Flight 11 crashing into the North Tower of the World Trade Center, the Red Cross began mobilizing to provide immediate help and our work continued for years after. Our massive relief and recovery efforts were funded by nearly $1.1 billion in generous donations, which were used to help more than 59,000 families affected by the terrorist attacks. We provided hundreds of millions in financial assistance to families who lost loved ones, injured survivors, first responders, residents of lower Manhattan who couldn’t return home and workers who lost their jobs.

More than 57,000 Red Crossers, just like Dr. Hastings, came from across the country to serve more than 14 million meals and snacks, opened dozens of shelters for people who were left stranded and connected some 374,000 times with people to provide emotional support and health services.

Now as we mark the 20th anniversary of that horrific day, we remember the victims, honor the brave responders and rekindle the spirit of service to help our neighbors in need.