It has been 11 years since terrorists hijacked four US passenger planes and crashed them into the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington D.C – killing 3,000 people.
The day marked one of the biggest news events in modern history and almost everyone will remember where they were when the story broke.What many people may not know is that The Salvation Army was the first relief agency to reach Ground Zero, reporting within a half-hour following the first plane crash at the World Trade Centre site.
Amid all the tragedy and the horror that took place in the days, weeks and months after, The Salvation Army was at the scene providing comfort and support to victims, families of victims and relief workers. John Berglund was responsible for emergency services in The Salvation Army’s Southwest Division when he was deployed to Ground Zero in 2001.
John told us how he and The Salvation Army responded to the disaster.
1) What was your role during the Salvation Army’s response to 9/11?
At the time, I was responsible for emergency services in the US Southwest Division, and during 9/11, I was deployed to the Greater New York Division to coordinate staff and volunteers serving under the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tent, where The Salvation Army operated a central commissary.
2) How many members of The Salvation Army were deployed at Ground Zero? And where were they from?
Throughout The Salvation Army’s nine months on scene, 7,000 officers and 32,000 volunteers/employees were deployed to the GNY Division, mostly from the US and Canadian Territories.
3) What kind of services/help did The Salvation Army offer at the time?
The Salvation Army provided feeding & hydration services 24/7 with the bulk of the fresh meals prepared through a Restaurant Revitalisation Programme which involved 250 or more local businesses. That community partnership kept affected restaurant workers employed while their neighbourhoods were closed during the lengthy recovery phase. In addition to food and hydration services, a myriad of supplies were distributed, emergency social services provided, including financial assistance, and the ‘ministry of presence’ applied at all points of service, including the New York City Medical Examiners office.
4) When was The Salvation Army first deployed? How long did this go on for?
At the time, The Salvation Army responded immediately with its traditional rapid canteen response, although today, non-governmental agencies are forbidden to self deploy due to safety and security concerns. The Army’s immediate response was followed with long-term recovery and rebuilding projects that continued through 2006.
5) Did the event, if at all, change your outlook on life or outlook on working for The Salvation Army?
The September 11th attacks scorched the outlook of all Americans, in my opinion, and perhaps intensified the call from the faith-based sector for more of us to get involved in the public square. Personally, September 11th helped my understanding of emergency services as community ministry, an expression of one’s faith in real time.
6) What are your lasting impressions of 9/11?
My lasting impression of Ground Zero is a surreal midnight image of a massive twisted steel sculpture flooded by intense light with flame and smoke smouldering from its depths. It’s the senses that I remember most — the sights, sounds, and smells.
7) Did you ever feel that you were risking your life?
No, but not out of bravado. If one is called to do this type of work, there is a genuine peace about it. That’s not to say that faith and reason aren’t partners, because in emergency services, they walk in tandem.
Like most, I’m mesmerised by destruction, but it is the human suffering that affects me.
From experience and training, I’ve learned to cope by staying physically fit, mentally balanced, and spiritually centred, and all three areas demand discipline if you are going to stay in the work. In short, human suffering motivates me to continuously improve my skill set, and remain focussed on the mission.
8) In the midst of such evil and suffering, what impact did it have on your faith?
I believe that we create evil out of ignorance, so the work inspires me to educate, to share both my life and faith experiences.
In the midst of suffering, I prefer to demonstrate my faith without words. I strive to be in the moment, and address the tasks at hand.
9) Can you describe the conditions at Ground Zero at the time?
The response work at Ground Zero was an extremely well organised national effort, bringing together the best of all sectors and underscored by unprecedented unity and intense remorse.
10) What kind of legacy do you think there is for The Salvation Army in New York following 9/11?
Incidents of national significance morph quickly into legend. The Salvation Army will always be noted historically for the service it provided in New York, but more importantly, The Salvation Army will be remembered by the individual lives it touched.
11) You have helped support others in other disaster zones, where else have you worked?
I have worked in many incidents over the years, including earthquakes, floods, forest fires, heat waves, hurricanes, mud slides, tornados, tsunamis, war and winter storms. The last catastrophic incident was the 2010 Haiti Earthquake, when International Emergency Services (IES), SAWSO, the Caribbean Territory, and the US Southern Territory came together to launch one of The Salvation Army’s largest emergency responses to date.
During Hurricane Isaac last week, I served as a federal liaison, and represented The Salvation Army in the recently opened US National Response Coordinating Centre in Washington DC.
12) 11 years on are you still working with families/people affected by 9/11?
The Salvation Army’s World Trade Centre Recovery Programme provided long-term intensive case management to people who had lost family members, homes, and jobs. The program was the longest running provider of case management services when it concluded in 2006. The Salvation Army remains involved in annual 9/11 memorial services throughout New York City and the surrounding areas.