Rotarians unite in response to an unspeakable tragedy.
by Cary SilverAs New York
Rotarian Matts Ingemanson headed for the subway on the morning
of 11 September, he could not understand why his cell phone
was not working. "For some reason, I couldn't make any calls.
My phone was completely dead," he recalled. "Then I heard the
sirens of firetrucks and police cars." As the train headed
downtown, Ingemanson noticed a distraught, disheveled man who
told passengers that two planes had crashed into the Twin
Towers. "I thought he was a homeless man. No one took him
But it was only a matter of minutes before they did. "When
I got out of the subway less than three quarters of a mile
from the World Trade Center, I saw a huge cloud of smoke
pouring towards me. Crowds of people were running down the
street, screaming in fear. I shouted, 'What's happening?' and
they shouted back, 'The World Trade building is coming
Like everyone else, Ingemanson started running. "I was
afraid for my life," he said. "I had no idea if there would be
a domino effect — buildings collapsing on top of each other. I
was in the middle of the risk zone, and I had no idea of what
was going to happen next."
Ingemanson made his way to Prince and Wooster streets in
Soho, just over a mile from the World Trade Center. "Then I
saw the second tower come down," he continued. "I stood next
to the NBC camera man who recorded the event. It was very
eerie — almost like the building was falling in slow motion.
None of it seemed real, like I was in a horror movie."
About two miles away, Rotary Foundation Trustee Chairman
Luis Vicente Giay and his wife, Celia, watched the nightmare
unfold before their eyes from the vantage point of their
35th-floor hotel window across from the United Nations
Headquarters. Giay was on the telephone talking to an RI staff
member in Evanston, Ill., USA, when the first hijacked plane
smashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
"I couldn't believe what was happening," said Giay, who
almost dropped the receiver. "The plane seemed so deliberate,
I wasn't sure if this was an accident or something else. When
the second plane hit the other tower, we knew it was a
Ironically, Giay was in town to speak about The Rotary
Foundation's humanitarian and peace efforts at the UN's Annual
Public Information/Non-Governmental Organizations Conference.
The conference was interrupted when the UN building was
evacuated as a safety precaution.
The Giays were trapped in New York for days, unable to
board a flight, a train or even a bus. Police had barricaded
the bridges and the roads for security purposes. "We have been
in difficult situations before, including an earthquake in
India and a volcano in Ecuador," said Giay. "But this was
different. This was an act of war."
On the fifth day, the Giays waited in long lines to rent a
car, then drove 14 hours non-stop from New York to Evanston.
"When we crossed the George Washington Bridge, we felt a sense
of relief and said, 'Now we can pray.'"
Another New York City Rotarian, 81-year-old Bill DeLong,
who also attended the conference, related, "I was in the
delegates' lounge when it was announced that the United
Nations building had to be evacuated." He has spent nearly
every day since then at "Ground Zero" — as the World Trade
Center site quickly became known — volunteering for the
Salvation Army and distributing food and water to the rescue
and recovery workers.
Ingemanson made it back home safely in Greenwich Village
and was stunned to find scores of e-mail messages from
Rotarians around the world. He quickly realized that his time
would be better spent in front of his computer screen than at
the disaster scene. "With the phone lines down, roads closed
and mass confusion, the computer became the best way to
communicate. You could post messages about missing people and
facilitate relief efforts. It brought people together in a
time of crisis."
Rotarians take action
Throughout New York, similar scenarios were playing out as
Rotarians tried to grasp the magnitude of the attack and
decide what they should do. The Rotary clubs of New York and
Staten Island both were scheduled to hold their regular
luncheon meetings on that Tuesday. Walter Parks, president of
the Rotary Club of Staten Island, watched the Twin Towers burn
and then collapse from across the bay. "I refused to cancel
the meeting," he said. "I was in disbelief, hurt, angry. I
felt it was important to hold the meeting like we normally
About 30 of the 100 club members attended — an impressive
number given the extreme circumstances. "As Rotarians, we
could express our feelings and grief. It was a time to share
and vent," he said.
Miraculously, no Rotarians were reported killed or injured
in the attack. But as Parks put it, "There wasn't anyone who
wasn't affected in some way."
Authorities estimate that at least 5,000 people from 88
countries were killed in the attack on the 110-story World
Trade Center, including hundreds of rescue workers who rushed
to the scene. The attack has been blamed on Islamic extremists
who hijacked four commercial jetliners that morning. About an
hour after the first two planes hit the World Trade Center, a
third crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., where 125
people died. A fourth hijacked jetliner, possibly headed for
Washington, crashed near Shanksville, Pa., killing all 44
The Staten Island Rotarians decided to take action
immediately. The club authorized $5,000 for emergency relief.
"We acted as a first response team," said Parks. "All five
Rotary clubs on Staten Island worked together. A member from
the Gateway club donated one of his vacant buildings to use as
a drop-off point for donated supplies."
Each day, a different Staten Island club manned the
drop-off site, collecting and sorting clothes, blankets, axes,
masks and other supplies. One Rotarian, upon hearing there was
a severe shortage of beds, arranged for 350 beds to be donated
from another organization. Another Rotarian arranged for the
donation of 10,000 bottles of water, which had to be picked up
in New Jersey.
"We rented a U-Haul to pick up the water and used our
political influence to get into high-security areas. It was
like a military zone," said Parks. "The new ballpark [Richmond
County Bank Ballpark at St. George] on Staten Island was used
as a morgue and triage area."
The success of the donation drive was due to classic Rotary
networking. "It was all on a handshake and a phone call,"
explained Parks. "People never asked for money — they just
The Rotary Club of New York also chose to hold its
scheduled meeting on that ill-fated day, even though its club
president, Helen Reisler, was stranded in Brooklyn. "The mood
was very somber," she said. "The second meeting [the following
week] was packed — people wanted to know what they could do.
Almost everyone had a relative, a neighbor, a co-worker, or a
friend who was killed or injured. We all felt the pain."
The New York club contributed $250,000 to its New York
Rotary Foundation to assist those victims and their families
who show the greatest need.
The club was particularly concerned about one club member —
attorney David Serko — whose office was located in the World
Trade Center. For nearly two days, no one heard from him. "We
posted messages on the Internet," said Reisler. "Thankfully,
we learned he was all right. He had gone in late that day and
missed the attack. His office was demolished, but he was
The club nearest to the disaster scene — the 18-member
Rotary Club of Downtown New York (Chinatown) — was also
scheduled to meet that Tuesday. But many members were unable
to enter the restricted area, and others were coping with
personal losses of their own. Two club members lost offices in
the World Financial Center, which was near the World Trade
Center. "Many restaurants, hotels and other businesses in the
area are on the verge of bankruptcy," reported club President
Chris Sang. "For the first month, they had no phone service
and few customers. The hotel where we meet is laying off
staff. We are seeing what we can do to help the people whose
livelihoods are being affected."
Andrew Cheng, governor of the affected District 7230,
personally visited Ground Zero a week after the attack. He has
received more than 300 messages and phone calls offering
support and condolences from Rotarians around the world. "It
was shocking to see the devastation in person," he said. "It's
a completely different experience than when you watch it on
A parallel tragedy
In Washington, D.C., Rotarians were experiencing similar
heartbreak in the aftermath of a hijacked jetliner that
crashed into the Pentagon building about an hour after the
first plane hit the World Trade Center. Timothy Hanson,
president of the 200-member Rotary Club of Washington, D.C.,
said his members meet in a hotel about a block from the White
House. "We had to cancel our first meeting after the attack,"
he said. "Our hotel meeting site was surrounded by Secret
Service men and there was an army tank out in front." He
described the mood as "somber," since many members are still
concerned for their safety. "Because of our location, we're
near many potential terrorist targets. Many people are
wondering what will happen next, especially in light of the
Nonetheless, the Rotarians of District 7620 and Washington,
D.C., are collecting funds for the victims. The Washington
Rotarians hope to help the staff of their hotel meeting site,
who are suffering financially. "There is a great sense of
community," said Hanson. "Rotary has an important role to
play. It's still relevant in today's world."
Many Rotarians traveled from other states to offer their
services. Ron Mackert, president of the Rotary Club of Haywood
Country (Canton), NC., USA, works for the Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA), which helps coordinate the many
relief agencies on site. "Even though I have served in 30
disasters, I have never seen anything like this," admitted
Mackert, who had a 60-day assignment at FEMA's Disaster Field
Office in Manhattan. "The sheer scope and magnitude of this
tragedy is beyond comprehension." He and his team worked
12-hour days, seven days a week.
One of his most poignant memories is a visit to the Family
Assistance Center, where families post photographs of missing
loved ones on a huge plywood wall. "You can't walk by that
wall without being seriously affected," he said. "It is even
more painful because all the photos show people at a happy
time in their lives — at a wedding, at a birthday party, at a
reunion. It personalizes the tragedy."
Mackert said the experience is also emotional because of
the diminishing "hope factor." He explained, "After the first
couple days, you realize that these people are not just
missing, but probably gone. Yet there are some families that
are still holding out some extraordinary ray of hope."
Indeed, many people in the affected cities are dealing with
unimaginable stress and grief. Serge Hadjolian, a certified
psychoanalyst and immediate past president of the Rotary Club
of New York, is offering free grief counseling through the
club. More than 60 people have responded to his offer to help.
"Many people have been traumatized and are dealing with
post-traumatic stress disorder. I am also counseling children
who have lost parents," he said, adding that he has been
working 12-hour days to keep up with demand.
Hadjolian observed that most Rotarians were galvanized by
the crisis — not paralyzed by it. "Rotarians do not let the
external environment control them," he said. "Morale seems
higher than usual in our club, because the members have a
Other members of the New York club have also volunteered
their expertise and the resources of their companies. Rotarian
Cindy Erickson, chief executive officer of the American Lung
Association in New York, directed her organization to
distribute 8,000 lung health kits as part of "Operation Return
Home" to residents of Ground Zero. The kits included masks and
gloves to protect against the thick soot, dust and other air
pollutants. She in turn called on another Rotarian, Clarence
Plummer, who owns a courier service. Plummer, along with a
group of Rotaractors, delivered water, masks and gloves to the
"People were walking around in complete shock, some covered
with soot," recalled Erickson. "I remember one couple — she
still had debris in her hair, and he was missing a shoe. There
was so much soot on their backs that I could have written my
name in it."
Perhaps one of the most uniquely qualified Rotarians in the
New York club is Dr. Jeff Burkes, an oral surgeon with the
unusual Rotary classification of "forensic dentist." Dr.
Burkes is chief dental consultant to the city's Office of
Chief Medical Examiner, whose responsibility is to determine
causes of death and identify human remains. Forensic dentistry
is an exacting science that requires great patience and long
hours. "During the first couple weeks, I worked 20-hour days
and went home at 3 in the morning," he said. "We were
overwhelmed by the sheer number of victims."
Dr. Burkes points out that the magnitude of the disaster is
unprecedented. "This is the worst mass murder in the history
of New York," he said. "In the past, we've had practice drills
to prepare teams of forensic dentists for a worst-case
scenario of two planes accidentally crashing into each other,
perhaps killing 500 people. But we never could have
anticipated over 5,000."
It may be an unenviable job, but Dr. Burkes' efforts have
resulted in closure for hundreds of families who have been
desperately waiting for news — any news.
Flashback to terror
In the U.S. heartland, Rotarians in Oklahoma City could
relate directly to the terrorist attacks of 11 September. It
was only six years ago that they were assisting the victims of
a bomb that destroyed the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal
Building — killing more than 800 workers and 40 children in
the building's daycare center. The Oklahoma City Rotarians
dispersed more than $500,000 to assist those victims and their
families. The poignant image of firefighter Chris Fields
cradling the lifeless body of 1-year-old Baylee Almon is
seared forever in the hearts and minds of the public.
Jim Clark, president of the Rotary Club of Oklahoma City,
said, "These recent attacks really struck home with our club,
since we had gone through a similar crisis. Everyone in
Oklahoma City experienced a flashback. We have great empathy
for the victims, their families, and what people are going
In response to the latest tragedy, Oklahoma City Rotarians
sent $100,000 to the Rotary Club of New York and $20,000 to
the Rotary Club of Washington, D.C. "We wanted to help in some
way, and we are here if they need our support or guidance,"
Halfway around the world, a similar sentiment was expressed
by Adel Mahmoud Hamdy, president of the Rotary Club of
Alexandria Pharos, Egypt. He wrote, "The catastrophe of 11
September is beyond the comprehension of any sane human being.
We grieve with you the human loss and the disastrous outcome
that will affect everybody on the globe. We in Egypt
understand the meaning and the extent of suffering resulting
from terrorism, whether local or international, as we have
experienced its bitter taste and saw its ugly face over so
"I hope that it is clearly understood that it is neither
part of the Islamic faith or part of our local culture to
attack defenseless, innocent people. Islam is an honorable
religion that respects the dignity of the body and soul, and
highly values human life. On behalf of my club, I hope you
will accept our condolences in the great loss of our community
— Americans, Egyptians, or any other nationality."
||Members of the Rotary Club
of New York offered their time, services and expertise
in various professions to help the victims of Ground
Zero. Left to right: Bill DeLong, Giorgio Balestrieri,
Matts Ingemanson, President Helen Reisler, Christopher
Plummer, Secretary Greg Lynch and Cindy Erickson.
A show of solidarity
Indeed, Rotarians around the world expressed sorrow,
sympathy — and a strong desire to help. "I received beautiful
messages and letters of condolence from all over the world,"
said Helen Reisler. "It was truly heartwarming to see the
solidarity and support of Rotarians, whether they were from
England, Colombia or Poland." Like other clubs and districts
affected by the disaster, Reisler also started receiving a
flood of contributions for the victims. "Whether it was a
contribution of $10 or $100,000, every donation is
meaningful," she said.
Throughout the Rotary world, symbolic gestures are another
sign of unity — whether it's a moment of silence at club
meetings or singing inspirational songs. One Rotarian, Henry
Panion of the Rotary Club of Birmingham, Alabama, USA, could
not sleep at night until he composed the lyrics and score for
a song to honor victims' families. Called "We Stand Strong,"
club members now sing the hymn at every meeting.
Rotarians in Germany, New Zealand and South Africa have
offered to pay the airfare and host the children of victims in
their Rotary homes. In Michigan City, Indiana, USA, Rotarians
donated a van to help New York firefighters. A number of
Rotarians — including Isabelle Hughes of Santa Cruz, Calif.,
USA, — personally delivered checks to the New York club.
Hughes, born and raised in New York, wanted to express her
support in person.
Many Rotarians believe that recent events prove once again
the vital importance of volunteer organizations such as
Rotary. RI President Richard D. King wrote on 12 September:
"These events demonstrate all the more the importance of
Rotary's Global Quest to keep our organization growing and
thriving. Where Rotary exists in the world, there is a greater
chance for peace. By swelling the ranks of Rotarians dedicated
to peace, we can further strengthen Rotary's mission to foster
international understanding and goodwill."
For Rotarians like Matts Ingemanson, Helen Reisler and
Walter Parks, it may take years — even a lifetime — to come to
terms with the tragedy. For each, the Twin Towers were a very
special symbol of the unique character of New York. "One of my
favorite memories was enjoying the concerts at the Twin Towers
during lunchtime," said Ingemanson. "I used to stand in the
shade of those magnificent buildings. Now everything there is
Reisler said that there is a "terrible void" without the
Twin Towers. "Now you see only an empty sky," she said.
"Sometimes, I still see the outlines of the towers. I can't
seem to erase them from my memory."
Parks has experienced a similar reaction. "I was born and
raised here. When I look at the skyline now, it's disturbing.
You feel like something has been taken away from you."
But all agree that Rotary has given something valuable
back. The crisis has inspired Rotarians to come together and
rise to the occasion, despite their own personal tragedies or
"The terrorists did not count on the fact that their
actions would only galvanize the public and make people even
more patriotic," said Ingemanson. "It has truly brought out
the best in people. Now I understand more clearly than ever
the need for an organization like Rotary."
Rotarians from around the world continue to send letters of
support, make contributions, donate blood and visit the
afflicted cities in a spirited show of support. Those
Rotarians who reside near the disaster areas continue to
rebuild their lives and reach out to those in greatest need —
the so-called forgotten victims.
"It will be hard to forget the tragedy of September 11. But
I will not forget the camaraderie and compassion shown by
Rotarians," said Parks. "That was Rotary at its purest. I will
remember that for the rest of my life."
— Cary Silver is executive editor of The Rotarian
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