Sharon Thompson’s 43-year life with the American Red Cross took her to numerous natural disasters around the country where countless lives were disrupted.
None, she said, compare to her 23 days in 2001 after two hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York City, killing thousands of people and changing lives in an instant.
“It was cruel,” said Thompson, who served as the local American Red Cross executive director for several years. “It was intentional and that was a hard thing to understand and to believe. It’s still hard to believe.”
It was an emotionally paralyzing time, Thompson said. Now 18 years later, when September nears, the memories of her time in New York and New Jersey, where she stayed, rush back.
“The first call I got when I was in New Jersey was from a youth soccer team and one of their volunteer coaches had died,” Thompson said.
She said the chaos, sadness and anger led to the most difficult days of her career.
“You try to help people as much as you can, but there was so much hurt,” she said. “I remember a child care center near there (the World Trade Center) and parents dropped their kids off and went to work that day and nobody was there to pick them up. Trying to find relatives was challenging.”
Thompson, 71, who is retired, said she left Sept. 13, 2001, for New York City. She said she received a call at 6 p.m. Sept. 12 and was told to be “ready to go out the next day at 6 a.m.”
While commercial flights were grounded, a private plane was being used to transport emergency personnel from the Red Cross to Ground Zero and nearby staging areas.
She said the images and smells of the attack aftermath are ingrained in her memory.
“The biggest surprise to me when we got there was the amount of debris,” she said. “You have 110-story buildings down to four or five levels. The dust and the smell are hard to describe. It just burned your nose and got in the back of your throat.”
She said her responsibility was staffing and getting people settled there for lengthy stays, and helping any and every way she could.
Thompson recalls being told about a man who sat in a park every day at the same time. She found out his daily place was where he had been when planes struck the towers 18 minutes apart.
“We needed to get him some help,” Thompson said.
She said an issue they dealt with in the days after arriving was so many people had called those known to be in the twin towers that they couldn’t reach family members to leave messages. She said voicemail boxes were full.
Thompson said she had helped through Red Cross during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 in Louisiana and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 in Texas.
One of the biggest differences, she said, was the massive loss of life and the attacks were “intentional.”
She said one of the most difficult aspects of 9/11 was family members who had nobody to bury. Instead, Thompson said, people would bury memorabilia of the deceased.
“They didn’t have anything else,” she said.
At her hotel in New Jersey, she noticed a Muslim woman working in the hotel gift shop. Thompson said she feared for her safety during that time.
“It was such an emotional time,” she said.
When she returned to Kentucky, Thompson said she was asked if she could say a prayer at a high school football game. She couldn’t bring herself to do it.
Thompson said she suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after returning and sought counseling. She said her husband, Bobby, also was a big comfort in helping her deal with her emotions.
Even in the darkness of those 23 days, Thompson said she found glimmers of hope. One day she went to Princeton University and sat as a new president was installed at the Ivy League school.
“It showed life was getting back to the way it had been,” she said.
Thompson said even as time goes on, what she experienced and what she saw others experience has stayed with her.
“There was such sadness and there was no value for the lives that were taken,” she said. “I like to see stories about the children of people who died there and how they have done. It all was so life changing.”