Mount Vernon man joins relief effort

Focus: In the aftermath of the attacks in New York, a Marylander's priority shifts from politics to volunteerism as he helps at the site.

Terrorism Strikes America

September 23, 2001|By Kimberly A.C. Wilson | Kimberly A.C. Wilson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK -- Matthew Colbert's raison d'etre used to be politics.

He ran a political consulting business out of his Mount Vernon apartment. He anticipated the next election campaign with delight.

But six days spent as a volunteer for the Salvation Army at the site of the former World Trade Center in New York have undone Colbert's passion for politics.

He returned home Thursday for a few days' rest from distributing food and gear to rescue workers at the attack site. Today, he plans to be back in Manhattan, resuming long hours of unpaid labor and redefining his life.

"Politics, even though it's so much in my blood, seem inconsequential now," sai

Colbert, 26. "I love Baltimore. But this is more important than anything else I could do."

For Colbert, who was born and raised in the grid of lower Manhattan devastated by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks there, the destruction him personally.

Smoke spews from the remains of two neighborhood landmarks he took for granted. Stuyvesant High, a school for students gifted in the sciences and mathematics that now houses a relief center for weary firefighters and construction workers, three blocks to the north of the crash site, is his alma mater. Sidewalks where he played as a boy are made unrecognizable under a coat of thick, gray ash.

He never questioned the impulse to help.

"I just had to make a difference," Colbert said. "And I couldn't do it from Baltimore."

On the morning of Sept. 15, he packed a small bag and boarded a train for Manhattan. Dressed in work boots, jeans and heavy gloves, he figured he'd pitch in alongside skilled construction workers and laborers. But the first job that needed filling was an assignment guarding a militarized perimeter five blocks from the crash site.

"The Army Reservists deputized me," he said days later. "It's kind of weird, me stopping [federal] agents, but they needed people to work security."

His next assignment, stacking goods, filling a table 10 yards long with food and coordinating supplies for the Salvation Army, might not have seemed so noble before hijackers rammed two planes into the twin towers.

But they resonated with Colbert.

For one thing, he appreciated the vantage point the acts gave him on the generosity generated by the terrorist acts. Six-foot-high pallets of donated bottles of water, crates of energy bars, shopping bags packed with medical supplies -- all signs of America's nature.

Even his 11-year-old sister, Lilias Evans, played a part in the giving, raising $1,000 over a weekend by selling lemonade and bagels with four friends in Pelham, just north of New York City. She found a bank to match the money and plans to give $1,000 each to the American Red Cross and the Twin Towers Fund, established to help the families of firefighters and police officers killed in the crashes.

"Everyone is trying to figure out how to help," Colbert said. "I am so glad I got to see that." His fellow volunteers have been another silver lining, he said.

Nilsa Colon, stacking bags of ice with Colbert alongside a massive buffet for rescue personnel, said the effort had brought together disparate personalities with a single, shared need.

"We have to be doing something to get through this," Colon said.

But camaraderie and generosity aren't enough to make Colbert forget the horrors he has seen during days of 13-hour shifts. Or the waste.

After making two supply runs to the Pile -- the name volunteers have given the mound of twisted steel, glass and human remains -- Colbert hopes never to return. "I've been down there twice, and that's twice too much," he said Tuesday.

Then he spent two full days in the area. He can only speak in shorthand about the experience to others who have been there, too.

"No one knows how to rationalize it. It's too awful."

He watched a relief organization abandon piles of donated socks and bottles of water at the corner of Greenwich and Harrison streets in Tribeca when there weren't trucks to move them.

As he repacked Friday, filling a bag with comfortable boots, work gloves and rain gear, Colbert found himself culling his political organization experiences for ways to help the volunteer services effort.

"I figure there has to be a better way of doing things so it doesn't go to waste," he said.

He has ideas and initiative, but no answers. Penning a memo to New York City's Office of Emergency Management in his head, Colbert said, he plans to resume doling out supplies for the Salvation Army. But he also wants to help coordinate supplies and services for recovery workers and others directly affected by the World Trade Center attacks so no donation goes to waste

"It's after that first rush of feeling, but maybe if we can get more organized that would help," he said. "I'm having trouble thinking too far ahead, but somebody has to."

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