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A lone fire engine at the crime scene in Manhattan where the World Trade Center collapsed following the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. Surrounding buildings were heavily damaged by the debris and massive force of the falling twin towers. (photo by Eric J. Tilford; U.s. Navy)

CITYWIDE — When commercial airliners smashed into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and the Pennsylvania countryside on Sept. 11, 2001, Santa Monicans responded.

They worked on the recovery effort at ground zero in New York City, counseled those traumatized by the disaster and did what they could to provide for those who lost loved ones.

While the nation was shocked by the brazen terrorist attacks, there were those right here in the city by the sea who couldn’t think of anything else but service.

A number of members from the local chapter of the Red Cross were among those who took the call to heart.

“The minute I saw what happened at the towers, I thought they are going to need people,” said Victoria Mendoza, a Red Cross volunteer at the time. “We went in and decided that we needed to do something.”

Mendoza, who had cut her teeth assisting Santa Monica in the aftermath of the Northridge earthquake in 1994, was so moved by the attacks that she left her job at a local mortgage company after her boss denied her request to take time off to assist the recovery in NYC.

“I took a leap of faith,” she said. “I knew I had to do this.”

Once being approved by the Red Cross’ national office, Mendoza traveled to NYC roughly a month after the attack.

After hitting the ground, she quickly realized that there was more to the recovery effort than just picking up the debris of the World Trade Center.

There were families of the fallen to consider, first responders to console and those living in nearby areas who were so traumatized by the event that many didn’t leave their homes for months following the attacks.

Those were the people that needed the most help.

Mendoza was assigned to family services and was dispatched to buildings around ground zero to find people who were having trouble coming to grips with what occurred. In groups of four, they would go door to door checking in on residents to see how they were coping and if they needed food, water or other necessities. They found people who secluded themselves, afraid to travel out. They would sit with them, asking them what they needed or just listening to their fears. Mendoza excelled at this in part thanks to her training with the Red Cross and her control of the Spanish language.

The work was exhausting for some volunteers. They heard stories of horror, solitude and anguish. The work took its toll on some of the volunteers, but Mendoza soldiered on. She knew that the work that they were doing was worthwhile.

“While I was there, I noticed that people didn’t know what to do,” Mendoza said. “I realized that I could organize this mess.”

The “heavy duties,” as she called them, would come to her to determine what needed to be done next. She reveled in the situation, taking charge of the counseling services. It wasn’t long until she was dispatching crews to locations around Manhattan to do what they could.

“We dealt with actual victims,” she said. “People who were affected emotionally, financially.”

Her stories could fill an encyclopedia. Aside from her own experiences, she recalled the tales of fellow volunteers devastated by what they discovered during their treks into buildings near ground zero. One volunteer shared the grisly tale of finding an actual victim from the World Trade Center, whose body was found in an apartment nearby.

It was that sort of experience that prompted the Red Cross to limit the amount of time volunteers could spend in the hot zone. The realities of what they saw and heard was too much for many, Mendoza said. It wasn’t uncommon for a volunteer to opt out of service and return home.

For Mendoza, the deployment couldn’t last long enough.

After just over a month of service, Mendoza returned to Santa Monica with a wealth of experiences and a heavy heart.

“I wish I could have stayed longer,” she said. “It meant so much to me.”

Mendoza wasn’t alone in responding. Former Santa Monica Fire Department Chief Jim Hone was one of the first to head to New York. He was assigned to the pile of debris at ground zero, working as a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue Team. His experience responding to the bombings in Oklahoma City in 1995 made him an obvious choice.

He spent months at ground zero helping gather the pieces of what was left of the World Trade Center. His work was felt deeply by those in Santa Monica. Capt. Judah Mitchell of the SMFD said that he was in the “thick of things.” Hone was one of the first people allowed to travel via airliner in the days following the attacks.

“He’s a real hero,” Mendoza said. “He’s so humble, but what he did was incredible.”

Aside from Mendoza and Hone, there were others who heeded the call.

Santa Monica Daily Press columnist and Red Cross Volunteer Bill Bauer was among those who couldn’t help but respond.

He too was assigned to family services, trying to make a difference. Bauer was sent to Pier 94 in Manhattan.

“The site offered counseling and various services to families of WTC employees including victims of the collapse,” he said.

Bauer would spend months in Manhattan.

“I think the thing that affected me most was sitting down with New York Police and Fire Department personnel in the center’s dining room and hearing their stories,” he said. “These were incredibly emotional moments.”

daniela@www.smdp.com

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