'The Least We Can Do'

An outpouring of sympathy and grief includes two best friends waiting hours to donate blood

Terrorism Strikes America

September 13, 2001|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

"May I have your attention! We're looking for the following people ... "

A young woman with a megaphone wades through crowds swarming the American Red Cross headquarters in Baltimore Tuesday afternoon. The stampede that keeps filling the lobby with potential blood donors refuses to turn away, leaving the staff with a waiting list swelling into the hundreds by midday. It is a unique problem in crowd control.

College students, nurses, office workers, entire families - every kind and color of person, it seems, stretch out in chairs, across the carpet and even outside on concrete pavement, waiting, hopefully, to fill a plastic bag with their own warm blood, anything to help the victims of terrorist brutality. By mid-afternoon, this waiting game has left the Red Cross headquarters with an unprecedented challenge in how to accept an unexpected burst of goodwill.

They have many needs to meet.

Clustered in a knot of college students with their books is Nina Khandaker, an 18- year-old Muslim woman. She explains that her family had been targeted by bigots at their home in rural Tennessee after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Her father had received death threats at the time. Now she will give blood to demonstrate that her faith does not condone terrorism.

"This has nothing to do with Islam," she tells people. "This is against everything we believe."

After several hours of waiting, 25-year-old Linda Zerbee walks away from the donation room and rests at a table to eat a chocolate cupcake. She had abandoned a highway safety seminar at Fort Detrick that morning after learning that one of the hijacked airplanes crashed near her family's home in western Pennsylvania. When she saw pictures of the dark rubble and ash stamped into a field near her parents' house, she felt she had lost her last haven.

"There may be 500 people waiting here," she said, "but at least everyone wants to do something. This is a good place; it feels safe here."

Somewhere near the center of the lobby, seated beside a set of buzzing window fans, Jeanine McKoy and Pat Judkin, best friends, turn to listen for their names. They click off the small portable television they brought from home. It's no longer needed here. Five television sets stationed around the lobby blare horrifying images of the day's disasters continuously.

Jeanine is a 31-year-old factory worker at a agricultural chemicals plant in Baltimore. When she left her graveyard shift at FMC Corp. at 6 this morning, she came home and found Pat watching TV. She had marched upstairs to bed when she heard Pat crying downstairs.

"Pat?" she yelled.

"Turn on the TV," her roommate sobbed. "I can't believe this is happening in New York. This can't be!"

They watched as the tiny image of a second American Airlines jet cocked sideways and sliced through the gleaming tower on their television screens. Jeanine started to cry, too.

For a while they watched together, and when they realized the worst was still to come, they went to a room in their house that their pastor had told them to set aside for prayer. They lit a few candles and bowed their heads. "We prayed for the victims," Pat recalls. "We prayed for the families. We prayed for our country."

"I just wanted to pray for everybody," Jeanine says.

When the towers collapsed, Jeanine thought of all the other airplanes coursing American skies. She imagined innocent people on buses and millions of office workers at their desks at that very minute. They felt a tide of confusion and helplessness. That's when they decided to leave their Druid Hill neighborhood and drive to Mount Hope, the regional Red Cross headquarters.

At 5:30, they have been sitting in the lobby for 2 1/2 hours.

"Can I have your attention! We're looking for the following people ... "

The woman with the megaphone strolls past. Cheers rise from a cluster of students nearby when two names are called. Pat's eyes drift to a nearby TV. Another breathless reporter chatters on about hijackings. Smoky images fill the screen.

In a secluded office, Red Cross workers take calls from people who want to help. A Desert Storm veteran tries to convince a staff member that he has the medical expertise to save people in Manhattan. "Put me at the top of your list," he insists. "Send me to New York."

Owners of two bus companies call offering free transportation to anyone who's been stranded. Reports from Baltimore-Washington International Airport fluctuate wildly with figures of airline passengers - as many as 1,500 at one point, down to 24 at another - who will need a place to stay overnight.

When the television blinks, Pat thinks she catches sight of someone jumping from one of the flaming towers. "Oh, my God," she whispers. "I just keep seeing these people." Tears stream down her cheeks, and she leans her face up toward the ceiling. "I will never forget this."

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