|OFF CENTRE: They
also serve who only stand and cheer: DISPATCHES: Groups of
volunteers are raising the morale of the fatigued workers at
Ground Zero, writes Mark Wallace |
Oct 20, 2001
By MARK WALLACE
The dozen or so men and women standing on the West Side
Highway don't appear to belong to any organised rescue or
recovery effort, or even to a clean-up crew but, according to
police, firemen and other workers at the site of the September
11 tragedy in New York City, this rag-tag operation is a real
Holding up placards marked crudely with "Thank You" or "God
Bless You" and waving American flags, the handful of souls
standing quietly in the pale autumn afternoon becomes a
hooting and hollering cheerleading squad at the approach of a
city vehicle or squad car, a dump-truck filled with twisted
wreckage, or a school bus packed with weary rescue workers
leaving the spot where more than 5,000 people lost their
Day and night since September 11, anywhere from a handful
up to several hundred people have packed this traffic island
at the west end of Christopher Street to show their support
for the crews hard at work at the site of the worst disaster
in US history.
The rescue workers are "men who've seen too much",
according to Tarp Mott, a self-appointed leader of the
cheerleading crew. "They've seen things
human beings shouldn't see. They've
been forced to face these atrocities, so let them have this to
face as well."
Though the sight of this cheerleading squad as they appear
on television screens or to the passer-by may appear comical,
workers at Ground Zero, as the World Trade Center site has
come to be known, appreciate their presence more than any
broadcast could convey.
"It's pretty grim down there," says Kevin Sutak, a New York
City deputy sheriff. "And when we're travelling from there to
our headquarters, to see this group is behind us, it's very
Sutak and a partner had stopped at the Christopher Street
traffic lights and were drawn into conversation with the
cheerleaders. They eventually pulled
their sheriff's cruiser to the side of the road in order to
show the crowd a photo album in which, along with shots of the
horrors that were the twin towers, the cheerleaders themselves
"It may appear silly to the general public," Sutak says,
"but the people working for the city appreciate what it's all
about. I see some of the same people every day, and it's
reassuring to me that these people are as committed as they
Tarp Mott, a former director of training for the internet
firm Opus360, was "caught in the tech meltdown earlier this
year", and found himself with time on his hands when disaster
"I came down here and I was totally stressed out," he says.
"I wanted to wave the flag, I wanted to do something, I wanted
to volunteer, but I couldn't find anything to do."
Mott was not alone. So vast has been the response to calls
for volunteers that the city has had trouble putting everyone
to work. Some, even those willing only to donate food or
blood, have been turned away. But here on the West Side
Highway, anyone who wants to pitch in is welcome.
"Anybody in the city, in the nation, in the world, who
wants to express their kindness and thanks for what these guys
are doing, this is the place to do it," says Mott.
The cheerleading regulars have been joined at various times
by supporters from as far away as Ohio, California, Australia
and Japan. "You just wander by here and stay for a few minutes
or for a few days and you realise this is a meaningful place,"
says Barbara Baluta, who has been coming to Christopher Street
almost daily since September 11.
As the volunteers wave and cheer, the police cars and city
vehicles rolling past slow down to wave and honk in response.
The rescue workers' faces read of shock and disbelief, but as
they near the traffic island, an element of relief steals into
their expressions as well.
"It seems minor, but it's very important," deputy sheriff
Sutak says. "I'm old enough to remember Vietnam, and there was
really no support for Vietnam, so this is really a new chapter
in American history."
Their efforts also make a broader
statement. "There's nothing political going on here, nothing
religious," Mott says. "This is civilisation. This is what
civilisation is all about. I feel very strongly that we will
not be the kind of people that allow other human beings to do
this work for us as if it didn't matter."
The cheerleading crew has also been
officially appreciated. Kate Walter relates the story of a
long black car pulling up to the traffic island and disgorging
a pair of dark-suited government operatives.
"It was someone from President Bush's office who had come
to give us gifts," she recalls. "They
were very CIA-looking. But they handed out boxes of M&Ms
with the presidential seal on them, and red and white
But even in a time of crisis, the fingerprint of celebrity
retains its value.
When asked about the flavour of the M&Ms, she said:
"Peanut or plain? Hey, I don't know. I'm not opening that
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