Too many volunteers, not enough survivors

New Yorkers flock to help, but find, devastatingly, that there's little to do.

By Michael Scherer - Manya Brachear

Published September 13, 2001 2:31PM (EDT)

The second wave of injured from the rubble of the World Trade Center never arrived at hospital emergency rooms and makeshift triage centers Wednesday.

As the rescue centers idled, hundreds of families covered bus shelters with images of the missing and bombarded hospitals with fruitless inquiries.

Rescue workers, who spread out at command centers across the city, were forced to turn away scores of volunteers, who had come to make sense of the tragedy by taking action.

"It's worse in there than it is anywhere," said Frank Vizzo, a volunteer who guarded the front gate at the Chelsea Piers, a waterfront sports complex that had been turned into an emergency surgery center. "Because you think you want to help but there is nothing to do."

By early Wednesday afternoon, Chelsea Piers had scaled back from 50 makeshift operating theaters to 19, said Peter Abraham, a medic who was working at the scene.

At St. Vincent's Manhattan Hospital, which received the brunt of the initial wave of the injured from the disaster, only six firefighters were admitted in the afternoon, putting the total number of patients at 449, said Mark Ackermann, the hospital's senior vice president.

An additional 700 families had come to the hospital looking for missing relatives who were not there. "I'm told that is just the tip of the iceberg," Ackermann said. Thursday morning, New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani said that the official count of missing people was 4,763.

Even with the influx of mourners, the clergy at St. Vincent's said they were inundated with pastoral volunteers. The hospital sent away at least 25 as soon as they arrived.

Diane Bonner, a chaplain at St. Vincent's, told the volunteers they could do more in their own neighborhoods and sanctuaries.

"You'll need to stand on the corners in front of your churches," Bonner told two Spanish-speaking sisters and a priest. "Not even that. You'll turn the corner and there will be a need. This has not begun to hit. We don't need people here. I wish we did."

The Rev. James O'Connell, a chaplain at the hospital, arrived to work an hour and a half early, not only to help, but to take his mind off his own despair.

"Home is not going to be much better," O'Connell said near the end of his shift. "The pain is just not going to go away."

O'Connell and other members of the Catholic priesthood were mourning one of their own. Mychal Judge, a fellow Franciscan priest who served the New York Fire Department for about 20 years, died administering last rites when the second of the twin towers collapsed, O'Connell said.

Outside the hospital, families gathered around television cameras, hoping to get pictures of their missing relatives on the air. They posted fliers on police barricades with names, vital statistics and messages like "Missing: One World Trade Center, 100th Floor."

At one point, a police officer named Sam Esposito emerged from St. Vincent's dressed only in a hospital gown, his arm and leg in fresh casts. Esposito, who worked in Brooklyn, said he had been off duty in lower Manhattan when he heard the explosion. Minutes later, he found himself searching the damaged floors of the north Trade Center tower.

"When the first building fell, we did not think that the second building was going to fall," he said. He remembered clearing five people out of their offices and checking the building's day-care center to make sure it was empty.

Though he narrowly escaped the building's collapse, he said one emotion overwhelmed him still: "You feel helpless. You feel like you want to lend a hand, but you can't lend a hand."

Elsewhere in the West Village, thousands gathered on the sidewalks to do what little they could, cheering police and fire vehicles, dump trucks and bulldozers as they made their way to the smoldering downtown. Some held wooden signs, with messages like "NY's Heroes," "Be Safe," and "Our Finest Hour."

Back at the Chelsea Piers, organizers turned away volunteers with megaphones, saying only that "Tylenol, ice, towels and T-shirts" were needed for the rescue workers. New Yorkers brought much more, dropping off boxes of Band-Aids, bottled water and a milk crate filled with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Jared Weinstein, 27, one of the few to find a place among the volunteers, came all the way from Brooklyn to lend a hand. "I couldn't sit in front of my television all day," he said as he helped sort donations. "Nor could I feel fulfilled enough by just giving blood."

Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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Manya Brachear

Manya Brachear is a freelance writer in New York.

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