Monday, September 12, 2011

"The Email That Went Around the World"

I am not normally a person who likes to look back.
I especially never liked to look back on the events surrounding 9-11.
But, though avoiding virtually all the news coverage this past week of the horrid happenings of ten years ago, I did watch a riveting CBS documentary last night following the lives of courageous firefighters who stormed the World Trade Center the day of the attacks -- only to be faced with the unimaginable.
It was inevitable, I suppose, that such recount and searing video footage would bring one back to the days when New York City, for some weeks and months was, in every sense, turned on its head.
Ten years ago, I was an animal rescuer.  I worked closely with AC&C (Animal Care and Control) the city pound system and did cat and dog adoptions via the Internet and out of two local pet supply stores.
On the morning of 9-11, 2001, I was on my computer, posting cats for adoption to Petfinders, (an Internet pet adoption site).  In the background a radio was tuned to a rock station that I was half listening to.
At one point, I heard something about "Plane....World Trade Center....explosion." 
I thought it a commercial for a movie and pondered it was a strange subject to make a movie about.
But, then after a couple of minutes, I realized it was no movie at all, but rather a real event.
I immediately shut down the computer and ran to the TV -- and fell back in a chair when seeing the first images of one of the towers engulfed in flames and smoke, a gaping hole in its side.
At first the speculation was "accident" and "small plane," which seemed odd considering the huge size of the hole.
But, then a second airliner hit the other tower and the talk quickly changed from "accident" to "attack on the country" and "war."
I wondered who we were at war with and what country would want to do this to us?
Shortly thereafter, news of another plane hitting the Pentagon and another hijacked plane over Pennsylvania.
At that point, I conjured up an image of Hiroshima. For all we knew another plane was going to fly over the city and drop a bomb.
It was then I clutched my dog, Tina and a couple of cats and said, "Oh my God, guys, this might be it."
But, one cannot sit around waiting for bombs to drop.
Rather, in times like these, one's thoughts (perhaps out of need to feel some sense of "control")  turn to small matters and tasks at hand.
I thought about the two cats I had up for adoption at a local pet supply store.  Under the circumstances, the owner might want to close the store a few days and I might need to get the cats out of there.
I picked up the phone to call the store owner, but the line was dead.
I realized I needed to walk over to "Dogs, Cats and Co." on 82nd Street.
If one can feel some sense of distance or detachment watching events go down on TV, that was impossible stepping out the door on that September morning in New York City.
Although the Upper East Side of Manhttan is a good distance away from the cataclysmic events occurring at the south end of the city, it was impossible to avoid the effects, sights and results of them.
Most people working in lower Manhattan and midtown were dismissed from work that morning. But, since the subway system was down, people had to walk north, both to get as far away from the catastrophe as possible and presumably to make it home.
The streets were teaming with thousands of people walking north as fast as possible.  I, on the other hand, was walking opposite to the direction of the crowds and could not help but notice the stunned and almost panicked looks on everyone's face.  I am sure I looked the same way.
As I was heading south, I could make out in the far distance, what at that time appeared to be a huge, white plume of smoke billowing up in an otherwise, cloudless, vivid blue sky.  The image was chilling, considering I knew what it was coming from......
I finally made it to the small store and was not surprised to discover the owner had left for the day, but left his assistant in charge.  Javier told me that the plan was to remain open over the ensuing days and there was no need for me to pick the two cats up.
Relieved, I began to make my way back home through the chaos again.
An electronics store on Third Avenue had a TV in the window and a crowd had gathered outside.  Most people had their hands over their mouths, watching the horror images unfold before them.  While part of me wished to engage in some type of conversation or commiseration with others, it was simply not happening.  Perhaps people were praying or were just in shock.  But, while we were all experiencing the same thing, no one said anything. 
It was shared trauma, but in complete and eerie silence.
Deciding to pick up a couple of items from the supermarket, I stopped in a store and was shocked to discover hundreds of people jamming the aisles and stocking up on supplies that they apparently figured might be needed if forced to go into "lock-down" in their apartments for days or weeks.
I supposed this made sense since no one knew what was really in store for the city over the ensuing days.  Deliveries might be canceled or perhaps the stores would be forced to close.
I however, only grabbed the few items actually needed at that time -- but had to wait almost an hour in line.
Finally home, I slumped in a chair in front of the TV and like a zombie, continued to watch the disaster unfold through the hours.  That is, until taking my dog, Tina later that evening to Central Park as described yesterday.....
The next day, it was "back to business" as usual.  (Or, when matters are totally out of control, one tries to focus on those things one has some measure of "control" over.)
I was supposed to pick up a cat for rescue from the Center for Animal Care and Control located on 110th street in Manhattan.
But, if I thought chaos had ruled the previous day, it was nothing compared with the chaos at the beleaguered and forever-understaffed city animal pound.
To make matters worse, the AC&C's entire computer system was down, making it nearly impossible to accurately track the animals and keep records in order.  (No one had any idea when the computers might be coming back as they were apparently linked into the computer system from the city offices down town which were destroyed.)
When walking into the lobby of the shelter, I was struck by the long line of people either waiting to look for a lost animal or giving up a pet. (Adoptions were suspended because of the computer shut down, staffing shortages and back-up everywhere in the shelter.)
No one could tell me where the cat I was supposed to pick up actually was, so I had to personally look through the wards.
The shelter was in complete disarray with handwritten notes in front of some animals cages and many animals with no papers at all.   Every cage in the shelter was filled with a cat or dog and workers scrambled around trying to make some order out of disorder.
I could not find or identify the cat I was actually supposed to take, but since all the records were askew, I could not take another one either as it was impossible to know which animals were on "hold" or "stray" or "available."
I was finally told to come back another day when hopefully the computers would be up and running.
But, meanwhile, one had to consider the animals who would most likely be arriving to the already overcrowded shelter over the ensuing days and weeks due to the disaster at the World Trade Center site.  (AC&C is the only municipal shelter in Manhattan and one of only three "full service shelters" in the entire five boroughs.)  While there were no pets at the Twin Towers, the surrounding residential area was in lock-down, leaving many pets stranded in apartments. Additionally, there would be anticipated homeless cats and dogs due to deaths of single owners.
Later that evening, when back on my computer, I decided to write an email to a relatively small Animal Rights email list I am on about the situation and events witnessed earlier. 
I figured with the shelter already packed and awash in mayhem, (especially with the computers down and staffing problems), it would be important to line up fosters, rescuers and potential adopters for the new animals who would soon be arriving.
Now, in the past I had written perhaps hundreds of similar "Need Help" emails about animals I was trying to save or times (such as the summer) when the shelters were particularly stressed and needed volunteers and rescuers.
Usually these emails garnered little if any response at all, but occasionally they did attract a few people willing to help.
I thus, did not hold out a great deal of anticipation or hope when finally clicking "Send" on the email which was written much like a blog post. (i.e. anecdotal reports of things witnessed earlier.)
However, the events surrounding 9-11 were anything but "usual" or "normal."
Nor was, as matters turned out to be, that particular email.
Although the email was sent to a small group of select people and although it contained the telephone number of the AC&C as "contact," the next morning my phone began to ring off the hook.  (Since my name was on the email, many people apparently looked up my telephone number.  Many others simply forwarded the email, apparently all over.)
Suddenly, I was way over my head.  In one day alone, I received over a thousand emails and at least a hundred calls.
The computers were still down at the AC&C and the shelter could not just "release" animals without fully knowing and documenting status.   Moreover, any animals arriving as direct result of the 9-11 disaster would have to be on "hold" to determine if they were going back to owners or relatives of potentially deceased owners.
I told callers and emailers that it was too early to determine status of animals at the shelter and which cats or dogs might, at a later date be available for rescue or adoption.    I simply took names and numbers.
But, if I thought the calls were a bit overwhelming on that first day, they were nothing compared to the following days as the email continued to be forwarded.
A few days later, I was getting calls from as far away as Texas and Washington state and even foreign countries like England and Australia.  They all said the same thing:
"I saw the email and want to help save an animal from the World Trade Center disaster."
Eventually, I had to tell most of the callers that we had no way of shipping animals around the world and the best thing to do was either contribute to animal and 9-11 relief efforts or adopt a cat or dog from their local shelters.
I was so busy fielding phone calls that I barely had time to walk my dog, Tina.
Then of course, there was the inevitable phone call from the very harried and frustrated Director of Animal Care and Control.
"Patty, did you send out some email asking people to foster or adopt?  We are getting thousands of calls and I have had to pull staffers away from important work to answer phones!"
"I am so sorry, Marion......I had no idea....I was just trying to help....never thought it would result in anything like this!"
The problem was, having spilled the ink out of the bottle, how does on get it back in?
The calls in fact, continued for weeks after that one email went out.
And while some animals did arrive to the AC&C as direct result of the World Trade Center disaster, it was thankfully not the huge number one might have speculated.  However, many animals were given up in later weeks due to people either being forced to move from the  disaster area or choosing to up and get out of the city.  (In fact, I lost one of my primary foster volunteers two weeks after 9-11 due to her parents demanding she get out of NYC.)
Eventually the computers came back online at the AC&C and order slowly began to follow.
However, we then had a very long list of people eager to "adopt a WTC rescued cat or dog."   In fact, for one of the very few times in history, we had a list of potential adopters far larger than the specific animals requested.
Most of the people from outer states inevitably declined offers of other animals from the shelter who arrived for the typical reasons of "stray," "moving" or "allergies."
But, many others moved forward with adoptions regardless of the reasons the animals were in the shelters.
In fact, I later heard that the ASPCA and other area shelters were able to adopt out dogs they had sitting in cages for many months prior to 9-11.  Some of the shelters (and rescues) were actually cleared out!
This was good for the AC&C because many of the no-kill shelters and rescues were then in position to rescue animals off the "euth list" of the pound.  -- Animals who under "normal" circumstances would have gone down.
For me personally, the aftermath of the "email that went around the world" turned out eventually positive because we too, were able to adopt out many of our cats and dogs who prior to that were in foster for many months.
But, the sheer stress of those few months following 9-11, the email that seemingly got forwarded to every corner of the globe and the avalanche of seemingly non-stop calls is something that can never be forgotten.
I guess its true that "people come together during a crisis."
And yes, it was truly moving and surprising the number of people who stepped up to help the animals of the 9-11 tragedy (even if most of the pets eventually adopted were not cats and dogs of the deceased, but more often, casualties of people moving).
But, I certainly learned something about emails during that critical period.
This is not called the "world wide web" for nothing.
Sometimes the email you click "send" on to just a few people can end up before the eyes of millions.   -- PCA

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