Joyce Chapman had been on more than 60 disaster relief missions, from East Coast flooding to wildfires out west. None of them came close to what she experienced on Sept. 11, 2001.
She and her husband, both volunteers in Red Cross Disaster Services since the early 1990s, got the call that afternoon. The couple had moved from Elyria to West Virginia 14 years earlier, and since flights across the country were grounded following the terrorist attacks, their short drive to either Washington, D.C., or lower Manhattan made them an asset.
Replays of the falling Twin Towers played in the background as they packed their suitcases for their assignment at the Pentagon, where just a few hours earlier an airplane had crashed into the building’s western wall.
Although the work was the same on any other disaster they’d assisted with, Joyce said it was the mood that was different, like a deep sadness.
“There’s no comparison,” she said. “A natural disaster — you expect that. When it’s manmade, man-caused, there’s a totally different atmosphere. There’s a different feeling about the whole thing.”
That feeling manifested itself whenever a mental health worker would leave the site before his or her scheduled commitment was through.
“They were listening to people debriefing, and it got to them,” she said. “They would talk to the rescuers and workers, and it was very difficult to hear some of the stories they would tell.”
Joyce, 66, took on an administrative role from 4 p.m. to midnight the three weeks she was there, coordinating outside donations and volunteering efforts with the Red Cross and scheduling essential tasks like eating times for the rescuers and work crews. She didn’t see much of her husband, Carl Chapman, who manned the supply tent from midnight to 8 a.m., but the pair was used to it from having been on so many missions together.
Carl was also having a difficult time with the situation, and had on more than one occasion visited a mental health worker to discuss his feelings about the attacks.
“He would be really upset because this is not supposed to happen in this country,” his wife said. “You look at the Pentagon and there are searchlights all over the place and they’ve got this huge Stars and Stripes hanging over the side. There’s Old Glory in all its glory hanging there with all the spotlights on it, so it’s a constant reminder.
“It gets to you after a while. It has to.”
Carl Chapman, 70, said seeing that hole in the Pentagon each night brought up feelings he didn’t know how to handle.
“It was just a situation I didn’t care for,” he said. “I just felt, ‘How could something like this happen in America?’ It just bothered me to my inner core.”
The couple returned home after 19 days when their assignment was over. Carl Chapman went to New York City a few weeks later, doing maintenance on the Red Cross’ Brooklyn headquarters, while both Chapmans went to New York in January, with Carl continuing his maintenance duties and Joyce handling administrative tasks about a mile north of ground zero, helping people get back into their damaged apartments.
The two were adamant that they not be near the site of the former towers.
“I saw enough at the Pentagon,” Joyce said. “I just didn’t feel like I needed to carry that extra baggage with me.”
Contact Adam Wright at 329-7155 or firstname.lastname@example.org.