Sept. 11 Volunteers Find Healing in Their Service

Fifteen years after the terrorist attacks, Americans mark the day with charitable deeds

In the days immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, J. Chester Johnson volunteered at St. Paul's Chapel, the historic church in the shadow of the World Trade Center that became a respite center for workers digging for bodies in the rubble of the twin towers. He helped to feed and tend to the firefighters, police officers and others.

Today, Johnson, a poet and a retired consultant, is working to build a memorial to the victims of a race riot near his hometown in Arkansas — an endeavor he says he took on after seeing what could happen when a group of people come together to grieve.

Dr. Cindy Otto, a veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania, arrived in Lower Manhattan as a member of a FEMA search and rescue task force, providing medical care for the dogs on what the workers called "the pile." Otto was inspired to start the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, which is focused on developing top-rate rescue dogs.

Fifteen years after the attacks, they and psychologists, chaplains, family members and others are continuing to honor the spirit that prevailed after the attacks, when thousands reached out to friends and strangers to help New York City recover. They say their work was life-changing, influencing them in ways that they had not anticipated.

"While we came to help, actually our being volunteers, it began to heal us," Johnson said.

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At St. Paul's Chapel, Johnson was among cooks and chiropractors, musicians and massage therapists working under a banner that read: "To New York City and All the Rescuers: Keep Your Spirits Up…Oklahoma Loves You!!" Podiatrists treated the workers' feet where George Washington prayed on the day he was inaugurated president — an appropriate tribute, they decided, because so many of Washington's troops fought without boots at Valley Forge.

James Wheeldon
Military at St. Paul's Chapel on Sept. 11, 2001, in New York City.

"There was a such an outpouring of love, care and generosity reflected during that time," said Johnson, whose poem about St. Paul's was reproduced on a memento card from the chapel.

Later, after he learned of the massacre of African-Americans during the Elaine Race Riot of 1919 — and that one of his grandfathers had participated — he became determined to create a memorial to the killings in Phillips County, Arkansas.

"It created a possibility in me to do things that I had not envisioned for myself," he said. 

Leo Sorel
St. Paul's Chapel fence on Oct. 10, 2001, in New York City.

On Sunday, the names of first responders, recovery workers and volunteers who have since died will be called out in St. Paul's churchyard, a ceremony organized by another of the volunteers, Barbara Horn. She returned to New York City from graduate school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after the attacks.

"It was like a homing device went off," she said. "I had to get home."

Horn found her way to St. Paul's and went on to befriend some of the relatives — and become a liaison to one family in Japan — and to help create the Sept. 11 walking tours conducted by survivors, rescue and recover workers and family members.

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"That's something that changed my life," she said.

Otto monitored the health of the search and rescue dogs — the last one, Bretagne, died in June at the age of 16 — and four years ago opened the center at the University of Pennsylvania. Most of the rescue dogs fared well afterward, she said, little affected by the lung problems many of the workers have had, for example. At the center, researchers train search dogs and investigate what makes them successful. 

Leo Sorel
St. Paul's Chapel porch in September after the attack.

Amy Attas, another of the veterinarians who volunteered near ground zero, said that the handlers would open up as their dogs were treated for cuts, burns and dehydration, prompting the vets to ask psychologists to sit with them.

"A lot of the handlers told us that their dogs were really depressed, because they were search and rescue dogs and they weren't finding anybody," said Attas, a house call veterinarian in New York City. 

Donna Bassin, a psychologist and an artist, accompanied the first family members to travel to ground zero, visiting the remnants of the twin towers by boat down the Hudson River. She quickly realized that she was unprepared for the enormity of the tragedy and six months later was consulting with military veterans about handling such overwhelming traumatic grief.

"I think all of us were in a very disassociated state," she said. "There was a gunner boat with us, that came down alongside of us. I remember staring at it and trying to get into my head that this was a war situation."

She has now made two documentaries about veterans back from the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq: "Leave No Soldier" and "The Mourning After." She wanted to learn from them, particularly the way veterans formed a community to take care of each other, she said.

Leo Sorel
St. Paul's Chapel interior on Oct. 24, 2001, in New York City.

More than 1,000 chaplains served at ground zero, said Peter Gudaitis, the executive vice president of the New York Disaster Interfaith Services and the president of the National Disaster Interfaiths Network. Some were ordained, credentialed disaster chaplains — meeting standards set by the national Red Cross — but others were simply volunteers who showed up without particular training.

"A lot of it was a lot of good will and unconditional love and a good mix of crazy -- and self-serving, self-promoting, proselytizing, problematic people," he said.

Some pushed themselves too hard, later leaving the ministry, developing post traumatic stress disorder or problems with substance abuse, he said. Marriages broke up.

In New York City now, a disaster chaplain always partners with a mental health professional. Special training is required. Proselytizing is forbidden. The goal is to help rescue workers and others to draw on their own emotional and spiritual resilience, and to make sure the chaplains take care of themselves, he said.

"The body retrieval and relief process, recovery process went on for 10 months," he said. "So it was in many ways a laboratory for how we do trauma work over a prolonged period of time."

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Sarah Glover
Jay Winuk co-founded 9/11 Day, a service day, in honor of his brother Glenn Winuk who died in the September 11 attacks. Jay Winuk stands at the memorial where his brother’s name is inscribed.

The Islamic Circle of North America was among the groups participating in the interfaith organization, working with Muslims who were falling through the cracks or other survivors who were not being served. Muslims tried to counter Islamophobia with civic engagement, said Adem Carroll, the group's director for Sept. 11 programs. The Islamic Circle of North America went on to create separate programs for U.S. disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, and younger Muslims in particular are taking part, he said.

"They have a sense, many of them, of their being part of a larger society with responsibilities whether it's to confront climate change or to deal with racial justice issues, whatever they're aware of and concerned about," Carroll said.

The Rev. Willard Ashley and Rabbi Stephen Roberts both deployed chaplains after the attacks and later they edited a book together — "Disaster Spiritual Care: Practical Clergy Responses to Community, Regional and National Tragedy" — when they realized there was not one available.

Ashley, the dean of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey, had worked to keep clergy healthy in the months after the attacks.

"The premise was if you're healed, you can help your congregation heal," he said.

Roberts, the president of Chaplain Distance Learning, said he was motivated by the sound in the emergency room at New York Presbyterian Hospital after the World Trade Center collapsed. It was silent.

"There's nothing worse than thinking you're going to be able to save lives and in the emergency room, there was no one to save," he said.

Glenn J. Winuk was a lawyer at Holland & Knight and a volunteer firefighter on Long Island, who on Sept. 11 raced from his office a block and a half away to help evacuate the south tower. He died when it collapsed.

"I knew my brother," his brother, Jay Winuk, said this week, standing at the World Trade Center's memorial pools. "I knew where his office was. And I knew there was no way he wasn't coming over here."

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Glenn Winuk, a volunteer firefighter and EMT with the Jericho, Long Island, Fire Department, ran from his law offices in Lower Manhattan to help the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He was killed when the World Trade Center collapsed. His name is among those inscribed on the memorial pools.

With no body to mourn -- Glenn Winuk's remains were not found until the following year -- his family placed some of his possessions in a pine box and at first buried those, including a small fire truck. And in his memory, Jay Winuk encourages people to volunteer in some way on the anniversary.

Winuk and a friend, David Paine, co-founded a nonprofit organization that has come to be known as 9/11 Day or more formally, the September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance. Last year, more than 28 million people commemorated the day with charitable work or good deeds, Winuk said.

"There is no other larger annual day of charitable engagement," said Winuk, who owns a public relations firm in Carmel, New York.

The group urges people to choose their own projects, whether writing letters to U.S. troops, giving blood or cleaning a beach. Its success comes from its flexibility, Winuk said, and over the years, the organization has worked with the American Red Cross, the National Football League and corporations such as American Express.

On Sunday, 2,000 volunteers from a coalition it put together called Tomorrow Together will pack a half a million meals for those who are hungry. 

"Even 15 years later, people want to do something to mark the day," he said.

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