For two US Airways employees, the events of Sept. 11 changed forever the way they see charity.

November 22, 2001|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Sandra Niedermair pulls a pair of wrinkled pay stubs from a blue folder, places them on Kim Durant's desk, and irons them straight with the heel of her palm. They used to document pride, these slips of paper from US Airways. Now, they are statements of need.

Sandra pulls more papers from her folder, laying them out one by one. Here's the slip from the credit union, showing a car payment of $320.68. Here is a printout with the $799 monthly rent, due yesterday. Here is the hospital notice, the BGE bill, the auto insurance binder.

Married three weeks, Sandra and her husband, Eric, have come to Durant's office at the Salvation Army of Greater Baltimore to perform an unexpected act in their new life together: ask for charity.

The bills were always private before, and always paid.

The Niedermairs are among thousands of people whose lives were sent into tumult by the Sept. 11 attacks - even though they were safely far away when hijacked jets hit the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania.

In the world before all that, Sandra guided planes to their gates at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Eric was a lead agent, loading bags, mail and freight from jet to jet. With their two salaries and overtime, they netted between $2,700 and $3,000 a month.

It was enough to pay for nice Christmases, the wedding they spent a year planning and the little townhouse in Glen Burnie where they live under a flight path by choice, just to listen to the planes.

It was enough to occasionally help out a friend, to hold a fund-raiser at work for a favorite cause, to peel off some dollars for charity.

Then came Sept. 11, when Reagan National Airport shut down for three weeks, and the Niedermairs lost the jobs they had counted on counting on. Now, they're the ones asking for help.

On its face, this visit to the Salvation Army headquarters in Federal Hill is nothing special - a quiet consultation in a nondescript office on an ordinary day. The waiting room is empty, with nobody to see that the Niedermairs are here.

Still, Durant wants to handle them gingerly. Over the past few weeks, the family services director has met many people like this couple - people who thought of the Salvation Army as a place to give to, not a place to get from. Since Sept. 11, the Salvation Army in Baltimore has helped people from 53 households whose jobs were upended by the terrorist attacks, spending $70,377 - an average of $1,327 for each one.

Looking over their bills, Durant sees how precariously many of us live - making decent incomes but spending right up to the limit. One crisis, and the bottom falls out. The mortgages she has been paying are sometimes as high as $1,500 a month.

For this, these unlikely recipients of charity are grateful. One family wrote a thank-you note, attaching a picture of their children, 3 and 2. In Durant's office, some have cried with humility and gratitude. She has never been hugged so much in her life.

So Durant does what she can to cushion the blow. She directs the newly in need to the entrance to the district headquarters of the Salvation Army, where they might be more comfortable than stepping through the door to the social services section. The Niedermairs follow her directions.

They have heard about this help through word of mouth. They don't know how much to expect. But Sandra is armed with her paperwork.

"I don't like asking for help," she says, fidgeting and forcing the papers straight. "But I know we need it."

You might think the jets roaring over the Niedermairs' townhouse would annoy, and you might be right if this were any other couple.

But Sandra chose this place, where she has lived for nearly eight years, so she could hear the planes, watch them come into view. Sometimes she'd be on the phone with a friend at BWI and read off a tail number passing by, and the friend would know the jet he was scheduled to clean would soon be on the ground.

The airline people made a family. Who else could understand the wacky hours, the complicated rules, the chaotic world of moving planes? Sandra's dad was an airline mechanic, and her brother is a pilot with United. Eric's father works for the Federal Aviation Administration. So it was no surprise that Sandra and Eric fell in love at work.

They met five years ago but didn't really get to know each other until 1999, when they shared a shift, the title of supervisor, and a smoking habit that often threw them together.

They're an odd couple. He's 6 feet 5 inches to her 5 feet 6. He's 28, she's 33. She's chatty, he's quiet. But in the ways most important to them, they fit together perfectly.

What they didn't expect was that they would lose their jobs together, too.

Minutes after American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon, the FAA shut down air traffic across the country. Eric reached his supervisor on the phone. Don't bother trying to come in, the man said; the roads are jammed. His pay stopped that day, and Sandra's not much later.

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