Yellow Hats

April 2, 2011 § 6 Comments

Traffic crept that Monday morning. The dashboard clock in the van read 5:45 AM when we reached the western end of the Verrazano Straights Bridge. Bumber-to-bumper, we inched out over the great span linking Staten Island with Brooklyn. The sky above the island’s hills and apartment buildings showed a slight glow … a promise of dawn brightening the eastern sky – but too soon … too soon!

Finally the hills blocking our view of the city dropped away to gray, fog encrusted sea and I looked left, toward Manhattan. The false dawn bloomed with the red glow of burning fires as great plumes of smoke rose where only six days before two towers had filled the sky.

9.17.2001 - Into the City

Difficult to watch. Impossible to turn away.

For days we’d hoped for survivors, and couldn’t sanction the thought of none. But reality stood in scattered and unclaimed cars dotting commuter parking lots throughout northern New Jersey, western Connecticut, and the Hudson Valley of New York. While the world watched for miracles, we knew a cruel truth.

We arrived at the Brooklyn Navy Yard by 8 AM, two hours later than expected. We donned our yellow hats – emblazoned with “Disaster Response Team – BGCNY (Baptist General Convention of New York) – and large aprons, stuck our food thermometers in our apron pockets and got down to the business at hand.

We toured our facility – a canopied kitchen area set up on tarmac. Just beyond the cooking end of the canopy stood the Disaster Unit and industrial strength generator. At that end of the canopy stood six large burners fed with butane from slender canisters every bit as tall as I am. In the middle, three 50 gallon trash cans held near-to-boiling water for washing, rinsing and disinfecting. At the far end, stacks of red Cambros® – heat or cold retaining rectangular “boxes” with airtight lids that we would use to send hot meals out to their destinations below 14th street in Manhattan, across the East River from us – and a world away.

SC Baptist HAMs Making Contact

Across a small impromptu courtyard stood another disaster kitchen, this one from Virginia. Beyond this sister kitchen stood two trailer trucks. One was a small antennae-festooned 8-wheeler from the South Carolina Baptist Convention, its HAM radio teams ready to connect us with lower Manhattan, which had no other means of communicating to the outside world. The other, much to our delight, was the North Carolina Baptist Convention Shower & Laundry 18-wheeler.

Other 18-wheelers were parked in a semi-circle around the perimeter of our Red Cross staging area. Refrigerated trucks with fruit and other “live” veggies, and non-refrigerated food trucks filled with #10 cans of fruit, vegetables, potatoes, hearty vegetable and beef stews, chicken in broth, brown gravy and beef. But no marinara and spaghetti … nothing red … nothing to remind those eating the meals of the gruesome task before them.

“The set-up team has begun the noon meals for you,” our blue hat boss said. “We have orders for 1,500 meals and they must be ready to load on the Red Cross ERVs (Emergency Rescue Vehicles) by 10:30 AM. First order of business … our head cook is sick. Anyone of you with experience who would be willing to take over?”

I’d been cooking meals for our church’s Wednesday activities for two years, but 1,500 meals? Could I do this?

No one else volunteered and I lifted my hand. While the others scrubbed their hands and arms to the elbows, I sat down with the head cook of the Setup Team and she gave me the crucial figures for meals, written in a spiral notebook, and procedures that I would need to follow.

By 9 AM my team had taken over the positions held by set-up. I looked at my list: 450 meals to the Police Academy (for police volunteers from around the country working on the WTC site); 35 meals for the Coast Guard Cutter in the harbor …

6 #10 Cans of Veggies = 150 servings

As head cook I planned how each meal set would be prepared, heated/cooked and dumped in the Cambros. For hot meals, before the lid was sealed, I took it’s temperature and wrote that and the time on the Address Sheet on top of the Cambro. The temp had to be 165° or better going out. If the food dropped below 140° it could no longer be served.

Baptism by menu! The first meals – rice, chicken with broth and pineapple; fruit salad; mixed vegetables – went out on the ERVs on time,10:30 AM, all 1,500 of them to their various locations.

The head cook from VA and I worked out a plan so that whichever of our kitchens finished meal prep and loading first would prepare lunch or dinner for both our crews and anyone else in the compound at that time. That first day we finished first, prepared lunch, ate, then began supper, which had to go out by 4:30 PM. That night VA did supper.

And so the days ticked by, working from before sunup to long after dark, from breakfast to nightly cleanup when we hosed down the cooking area, especially after cooking rice or pasta. Each night, with aprons, hot pads and oven mitts in the laundry for North Carolina to wash overnight, we sat down in the kitchen area for devotions and then walked the weary two blocks to the Navy brig, where we would live in quarters built for prisoners, not disaster cooks. Even those hard slab mattresses looked good.

On Saturday afternoon, as we finished lunch and began preparations for dinner, our replacement crew arrived. I handed the new head cook the spiral recipe book with its careful figures for so many cans = so many meals.

Finally, as the sun began to set, we climbed into the vans and drove back to Jersey, over the Verrazano Straights Bridge, across Staten Island, leaving the still smoking ruins behind.

On that trip back to sanity, and ever since, on the anniversary of that fateful day that changed us all, I look back and remember not the sight of two towers falling, but stacks of red Cambros full of hot food and the 30,000+ meals we cooked in six days for those on the front lines.

NYC Light Memorial

World Trade Center Disaster Response – A Day in the Life


§ 6 Responses to Yellow Hats

  • Donna Beard says:

    Mary Lois,
    Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. Most of us were so wrapped up in the tragedy of 9-11 that we never gave a thought to food prep for hundreds and hundreds of workers. Thank you. I am happy that you were there to help.

    • I hope you took the opp to view the Slide Presentation – see it below the final picture of the Memorial Lights.
      Thanks for your warm comments. I was blessed to be able to contribute.

  • kimberlee esselstrom says:

    I know exactly where I was on 9/11. Sitting at home, self-absorbed, worried about myself, my children, and my family. There you were, Mary Lois, prepared to help others at the drop of a (yellow) hat.

  • What a gift you helped give to others on September 11th.

  • http;// says:

    My husband and I helped the Red Cross after Katrina here in Tallahassee (our Red Cross being particularly good, many of those displaced by the storm came here). We did a little bit of everything from feeding to organizing the warehouse. What I remember most is how disoriented those who had lost their homes were and how important the kindness they received from staff and volunteers was.

    At times of disaster those of us who were lucky enough to be elsewhere when the worst happened must help–and accept help when we are at the center of the tragedy. Humanity is really at its best when going through the fire.

  • Lovadell French says:

    Thank you, such a well done story. We all need a reminder of who Americans really are–helping one another,not tearing each other down. The Towers unite us all. Dell

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