Volunteer helps weary rescue workers

December 26, 2001 12:00 am
Greg Brown said the nightly view out his room window could only be described as eerie. He lived near the site for two weeks. (Photograph by Greg Brown).
Greg Brown said the nightly view out his room window could only be described as eerie. He lived near the site for two weeks. (Photograph by Greg Brown).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

Even after hed finished a 20-hour shift supervising security at a pair of respite centers near Ground Zero in Manhattan, retired Oregon State Police officer Greg Brown of Baker City would sit in his apartment with a view of the site of the nations worst terrorist attack and watch.

Hed watch as operators of huge backhoes would fill their clamshells with 10 yards of dirt and debris, then pass the load along to their neighbor.

One operator, Brown remembers, was so delicate operating his machine that he could light candles on a birthday cake.

Eventually, though, the operator would come across a body, or a body part. At that point, hed gently set it on the ground, where a recovery worker would drape an American flag over it and move it off to the side.

I saw that scene several times while I was there, Brown said. And its work that continues.

Indeed, workers spent Christmas Day at the site in an effort to help the families of victims begin to gain some closure in the awful ordeal.

Brown, who worked 27 years an OSP officer, served as a Red Cross volunteer in New York City for two weeks in late November and early December. Much of his worked centered on ensuring safety in the respite centers places where recovery workers, including firefighters and police, could go at the end of their long work days.

I felt the same rage and the desire to help, to do something positive, as everyone else, Brown said. I think anyone else in Eastern Oregon would have done as well or better.

Hardly, says the director of the local Red Cross chapter.

We never expected to find a volunteer of Gregs caliber in our small community, said Beverly Higley, executive director of the Eastern Oregon chapter. Its one of the most difficult jobs that any Red Cross volunteer will ever face, but Greg made the chapter proud.

The volunteers who came to the New York respite centers at the end of their own grueling days police and firefighters, health and ironworkers told Brown how much they appreciated the care they received at the twin respite havens: food, showers

One police officer told me he was treated better at the respite center than he was at his own wedding, Brown said. The Red Cross served more than 11 million meals and snacks before (the centers) were shut down. After my experience there I understand much better how the Red Cross uses the money to help all the victims not just those who lost a family member, but all those who worked so hard to recover to bodies, or who lost a member of their extended family.

Brown said that one important service the Red Cross provided was to the families of victims who were not American citizens. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is forbidden by law from channeling funds to people who arent U.S. citizens yet another blow to the families of illegal immigrants who were service workers in the Twin Towers, Brown said.

The families were afraid that if they came forward to FEMA, they would be sent back (to their native country), Brown said. So theyd instead be taken to the Red Cross, and it was amazing to see how the Red Cross would take care of these people.

Besides serving as places of rest, the respite centers dispensed gear that workers would need the coming day: boots, respirators, gloves, coats, jeans, goggles, non-prescription medications, as well as free counseling and pastoral care, Brown said. As rescue workers would sit down to eat their late dinner, respite volunteers placed before them letters and cards received from all over the world.

The walls of the halls and rooms were covered with the many messages from around the world, he said. Some of the single-page notes were placed on the tables and were read by those eating a meal or snack. Truly the responses from the workers were all that the senders could have hoped for. I had no idea the notes could mean so much to those doing the work; anyone who sent one should be very proud of themselves.

By coincidence, Brown said, the New York Police Department has a black granite wall just west of Ground Zero honoring officers killed in the line of duty. The site, he said, has become a shrine for the 71 police officers and 343 firefighters killed on Sept. 11. Visiting firefighters and officers have left behind police and fire hats, helmets, badges and patches from departments around the world. Brown said he made sure that patches from the OSP, Baker City Police Department and Baker County Sheriffs Office were added to the shrine.

One of the most poignant stories Brown came back with was from an NYPD officer who worked a late shift Sept. 10, then went out to play golf on the morning of Sept. 11.

He told me he got paged, and he tried to come in to Manhattan, but the traffic was so bad he couldnt make it in, Brown said. All day, he thought hed lost his whole day shift, 30 guys, but it turned out they lost just two.

In the aftermath of the attack, the law enforcement community has become even more tight-knit, he said.

It gave everybody a better sense of appreciation for their fellow officers, more of a sense of whats important, he said.

Brown said he returned to Baker City with a suitcase full of t-shirts. One he treasures is from Port Authority police, which lost five percent of its officers in the attack.

Once you get started buying those t-shirts, you cant stop, because all the moneys going to the widow and orphans fund, he said. Its more t-shirts than Ill ever wear.

In addition to a new wardrobe, Brown said he also returned home with plenty to think about.

It was a great experience, but not necessarily a wonderful one, he said. I cant articulate its impact, but it feels right to support, in a small way, those who have given so much and those who have lost so much more.