In 2021, the tragedy is as fresh and real as when she saw it firsthand.
Mary Amundsen spent 2 1/2 weeks volunteering as a mental health worker with the Red Cross, beginning Oct. 3, 2001. She traveled to New York City with a group from Rochester-- mainly nurses and other medical professionals.
Amundsen remembered being staggered at the scale of the damage at Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center that was slammed by hijacked airplanes. Cranes lifted debris in the search for bodies, then let it fall, raising more clouds of choking, toxic soot.
“It was a huge area that was impacted, not just the Twin Towers,” she said. “Everything was gray. All the display windows were covered with this dust and whatever it was.”
In her first week, Amundsen helped schedule volunteers in Brooklyn, ferrying back and forth from work in the afternoon and late evening via New York’s subway. In her second week, she was stationed at Pier 94, inside the Family Service Center, the size of 3 1/2 football fields and bursting with people in need of help.
The disaster meant that people who lived and worked within blocks of the towers couldn’t get back into their homes or offices -- hundreds were left suddenly homeless and jobless. Thousands more had lost at least one family member, friend or coworker. All of them needed help.
Amundsen and the other mental health volunteers “made the rounds.”
“We walked up and down the line to listen to people’s stories,” she said. “Everyone knew someone.”
Primarily, counseling came down to finding support systems for all of the traumatized people. The team referred them to family, friends, churches. They were hesitant to overtax local counselors and community centers -- after all, those workers were all traumatized as well.
Everyone in New York was impacted. The relief workers, social workers and law professionals on hand were just as desperate for an outlet.
“When the attorneys weren’t busy, sometimes they’d turn to me and just start talking,” Amundsen said.
Amundsen had been to plenty of disaster sites before from hurricanes and the like. But the sense of ongoing fear after 9/11 was different.
“We’d never been attacked before,” she said. In a 2002 essay, she compared the faces around her to those she’d seen in news broadcasts from Israel, Palestine and Bosnia -- places living under the threat of terrorist attack.
The U.S. had begun its bombing campaign against the Taliban, and fear of reprisal was heightened during the later anthrax scare.
Every night, Amundsen called her late husband Mel, who worked at Mayo Clinic. While the physical impact of the 9/11 attacks was in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, fear spread across the country. In Rochester, the clinic had guards at every entrance, in case a vehicle loaded with explosives tried to get close.
“Everyone was taking precautions,” she said.
Sometimes Amundsen rode in boats with families who wanted to get close to the destruction. Presumably, they were looking for bodies. Amundsen said most wanted to be closer to the physical remains of their loved ones. They “searched with their eyes to try to locate where, maybe, their loved one had last been,” she wrote in 2002.
Lack of closure was a constant strain.
“They wanted to learn if their loved one had really died,” Amundsen said. “They knew in their head … but there were walls and walls of photographs. ‘Have you seen this person?’”
“When you’re in the midst of it, you think it’s just you -- New York thought it was just them,” she added. “But the whole country was … in shock.”
After 2 1/2 weeks of 12-hour days, Amundsen was emotionally exhausted. “I was on the edge of tears all the time,” she said.
It was time to go home.
Twenty years later, Amundsen read through her records of the attacks and weeks following, and teared up all over again.
“What it did to families, I can’t imagine,” she said. “I wonder how those children are doing now, 20 years later.”