1.  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
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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
Financial Times; Oct 20, 2001

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 morale booster.

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 lives.

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 uplifting."

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 appear.

"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 are."

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 struck.

"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 stripes."

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 box."

Copyright: The Financial Times Limited 1995-1998

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