My memories of 9/11 are often difficult to process, and so I focus on the good that I saw in people in the hours, days, and weeks of the aftermath.
I was walking into work, a block away from the World Trade Center, as the first plane hit. But unlike many people watching on TV, we did not know what was happening - there was too much chaos on the ground. It was well after the second plane hit, as we were all streaming out of the World Trade Center area, that I found a payphone to call my husband back home in New Jersey. I told him we were evacuating downtown because two planes had accidentally crashed.
"Do you know what's happening?" he asked, and then told me about the Pentagon being hit. The realisation that it was an attack made my knees go weak.
The images, sounds, and feelings of that morning won't leave me. Do you remember a third plane? I do. I was with a mass of people moving away from downtown - and then we heard it. We started to scream and panic - then slowly, thankfully, realised it was a military plane.
By the time the buildings fell, I must have been a good six or seven blocks away. After a huge bang, massive billows of smoke - seemingly sky-high - came pouring towards us. I was far away enough that it didn't come close, but we all ran, with many of us hysterically crying. I thought another attack had happened. I just wanted to get to my family. I still had no idea the buildings had collapsed.
All ways out of Manhattan were closed off to my home in New Jersey. As I arrived at my brother's place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was shellshocked but happy I had finally made it to family. The TV was on, and for the first time I saw what everyone else had seen - the bird's-eye view of the buildings collapsing. It rocked me perhaps more than being there had. When I was running, I didn't really know what was happening - I was just trying to get out.
Over time, those frightening memories have faded, replaced by a more powerful set of recollections. After calling my family, I couldn't sit still. The Red Cross was a few blocks away, an organisation for which I'd volunteered for over a decade. I went to see what was needed.
A large auditorium was set up to register volunteers. Hundreds were streaming in to sign up, to see what they could do to help. At that time, agencies were still assessing people's needs, so we collected names to register for volunteering. In the wake of a terrible disaster, whether man-made or natural, the first thing others want to do is to help. To do something positive to counteract the negative.
I made it home, across the river to New Jersey, the next day - so happy to be with my husband and toddler again. A few days afterwards, the Red Cross deployed me. As a trained disaster services volunteer, I was one of the first to receive a call.
I volunteered at Ground Zero, by then a smouldering huge pile of rubble, also known as "the Pile". The only times available were the night shift, from midnight to 8am, but I jumped at the opportunity. So many wanted to help so badly.
This was the first major disaster during which the Red Cross served not the victims, but the rescue workers themselves, setting up a relief center for rescue workers to take breaks from searching for missing colleagues. Exhausted, drained firefighters, police, and rescue workers would come in for their break, after spending time looking for anyone who was alive. Our job was to give them that respite. We had warm food, coffee, places for them to try to relax. Psychologists and mental health professionals were on hand. Companies had donated items - some a bit odd - that we gave out.
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Remember the Ty Beanie Babies? There were boxes of them. And they were popular! The rescue workers spent countless hours searching the Pile, and spent many sleepless nights away from their children. They took the Beanie Babies home to their little ones, not being able to explain what they were actually doing. We had therapy dogs, and as the rescue workers pet them, you could palpably see the stress leave their bodies.
One time I handed out chocolate lollies - Hershey Kisses. Cheesy as it sounds, as people were leaving, my fellow volunteer and I would ask, "Want a kiss?" and hand them a chocolate. An exhausted firefighter, who had the gear of a high-ranking officer, walked through, his mind barely registering anything. I can only imagine the pain he was feeling at his lost team members. Our cheeky query snapped him out of his reverie, and after being startled, he laughed. He thanked us and said it was the first time he had smiled in days.
Fifteen years later, I am still a proud Red Cross volunteer. I now work alongside many heroes in the Australian Red Cross, most recently serving in the bushfires, and, earlier this year, at the Port Macquarie floods. In the midst of that traumatic time, I choose to remember the response of the American Red Cross, the firefighters, the police - the many first responders that embody the best in all of us.
I hope that you, too, take this day not only to remember 9/11 but to honour the first responders that you know.
- Ritu Clementi is a Red Cross volunteer who worked across the street from the World Trade Center in 2001 and now lives in Canberra.