Jack Wicks, KI2M - WTC Relief Experience

On Monday afternoon, the 17th, I took the LIRR to Brooklyn and then the subway to Court Street. I walked a few blocks to Cadman Plaza East and entered Red Cross, Brooklyn HQ. This journey started the week before when I saw a banner scrolling on TV saying the Red Cross was looking for amateur radio volunteers. I listened to various local repeaters and found Nassau County Races/ARES operating on the 146.85 (LIMARC) machine. Someone was asking about volunteering and was given a phone number to call. I copied the number and waited a few minutes to give the other person a chance to call. It turns out I called first and I was given the number of the Section Emergency Coordinator.

He gave me the details on what the shifts were, time involved including transport and what equipment was needed. They were asking for a 2-meter or 2-meter/440 mobile radio power supply and antenna. Since operations were on a PL'd machine, that was also required. My only mobile rig does not have PL encoding so I said I'd try to borrow a radio that did.

At the September Wantagh Amateur Radio Club meeting on the 14th, I asked the members present if anyone could loan me a radio with a PL. I had also sent out an e-mail to all local amateurs on my address book making that request. There were a number of people who offered me equipment, but Sid Wolin was the first to offer a radio with a working PL, so I accepted. He was gracious enough to bring it to the meeting at the diner the following day, which saved me some time going to his house to collect it.

I called the SEC back and left a message on his answering machine, after I had the radio. When I didn't hear from him in a day, I started looking for a way to sign up. The banner on TV had a phone number, which I called. It was Red Cross and I spoke to an amateur there who signed me up for the 6pm to 6am shift on Monday night, 9/17 to Tuesday morning 9/18.

The next day, I gathered equipment, charged my batteries for my HT and decided on a suitcase to carry it all. The suitcase I chose was an upright one with wheels, which came in very handy. On Monday, I took the 3:56pm train from Massapequa to Jamaica Station where I transferred to the train to Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn. That train was already there so I made a very quick connection. In Brooklyn, I switched to the subway, which was very crowded for that time of day. Finding the right platform took a number of tries but with help from strangers I questioned I did and was on my way to Court Street.  From the Court Street Station it was about a 4-block walk to Red Cross so I was glad to have the wheeled suitcase. At Red Cross, I asked where the amateur radio operation was and with the help of a Red Cross volunteer, I found where to check in.After signing in on a form, I had to wait in line for a photo for my Red Cross ID tag. After that, some forms were distributed to all the amateurs waiting to go. These forms gave the frequencies, location names and general operating info.

We were then given assignments and mine was the Seward Park High School (Grand Street, near Canal Street). Since we had time to wait for the van to arrive, we were ushered to the basement to eat in the "cafeteria". This was just some tables that were setup with various fast food and fruit and beverages. There was plenty of food and we had enough time to eat before we were called back upstairs. They separated us into groups for transportation. There were 5 other amateurs in my group and we had a Red Cross volunteer driver from Long Island. We loaded our gear into the van and drove across the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan.

As soon as we saw "ground zero" from the bridge, the first impression was the brilliant light as it was very brightly lit up for night work (this was about 7:20 pm so after sunset). Mine was the first stop for the van so I arrived at the school about 7:30. It was functioning as one of fourteen Red Cross shelters in Manhattan. There were also amateurs at Red Cross and at ground zero. Some sites had only one (I was alone) and some had two or more.

I found the amateur who I was relieving and he showed where he had been setup, in the back of the gym. When he introduced me to the shelter manager, the manager asked me to setup in the principal's office, which he had gotten permission to use shortly before. This was down a short hall from the gym. The gym was setup with cots and tables for food.

The principal's office was a very large room with a desk, a computer desk and a conference table. There were at least three multi-line wired phones and each shelter had a Nextel cell phone, as landlines were not all operating properly. I setup my radio and power supply on the computer desk to be near the shelter manager who was using the other desk. I tried the mag mount antenna on a window nearby but couldn't get a signal to the repeater so I tried another window. That too didn't work so I moved the setup across the room and tried another window. This time, I was able to access the repeater.

The shelter I was at was very quiet that night and we eventually had no more "clients" but the staff remained. There was the manager, a couple of school custodians, two nurses, some security guards, one NYC policeman and a few Red Cross volunteers. It was a typical NYC mix with a Chinese nurse, some French Red Cross volunteers, a Puerto Rican custodian and some African-American guards. Everyone was friendly and worked together.

We didn't have much to do after the clients left so there was time in between contacts on the radio to chat. A shelter manager from a nearby shelter came around later and asked if we had any hot meals. There was difficulty getting the trucks out to all shelters so our shelter and his did not have any hot food and it was past 9 pm. He said a local Chinese restaurant offered to give free food whenever we needed it so a couple of people went out and brought back some pork-fried rice.

We all ate that and there was plenty of bottled water and snacks. The radio traffic fell off after midnight and I had more opportunity to chat. The custodian came in later and brought photos of the burning Trade Towers he had printed on the school printer. He said he had taken many pictures of that event with various cameras. He knew how to get to the highest point on the roof and they had given him a digital camera to after he used the film in a Polaroid and 2 disposable cameras. The school is about 17 blocks from ground zero so the photos were very dramatic. The custodian told me it was difficult to take the shots because of the tears in his eyes. He said he really wanted to run down to ground zero to help but he had to think about the kids in school. He lived and worked in the shadow of the Towers so it was a powerful experience for him.

The NYC police officer was a soft-spoken young man in his 20s who was the father of an infant child. It wasn't until after he left to go back to his precinct that I learned he had been at the Towers when they came down.

There was some radio traffic that night about an incident involving some suspicious Middle Eastern men in a car who tried to pass a police checkpoint then raced off. The rest of the traffic was about shelter operations and needs and reports of how many people we had at each location. Between midnight and 5am things were pretty quiet. At about 6am the radio traffic increased as new shelter managers arrived and those reports were passed.

The vans picking up people missed some operators and were running hours late. The shelter manager offered me a ride to the LIRR in Brooklyn as he was going to work near there so I was lucky. He works for the NYC Welfare Fraud Bureau so he used his gold shield to cross the Brooklyn Bridge, which was then only open for emergency traffic. The first checkpoint was a NYC policeman who let us through after seeing the shield. The next checkpoint was a NY State Trooper and he inquired who the passenger was but my Red Cross ID satisfied him.

I caught a train in a few minutes and almost slept through the stop at Jamaica where I had to change trains since I had been up well over 24 hours at that point. The same thing happened on my trip to Massapequa but I woke up at the station before. I called home and my son was there and came to give me a ride as walking the 15 minutes pulling the radio gear would require more energy than I had left. I arrived home at 9:30 am.

It was a small part to play but I am glad to have helped out and I would do it again. Now I am looking at ways to have my radio gear in greater readiness for use in any emergency.


Jack Wicks KI2M