Forever Changed: Bender reflects on volunteer experience after 9/11

Jack Bender of Halstead reads over a letter that a student wrote to Red Cross volunteers like him during the six weeks he spent volunteering at Ground Zero after the 9/11 attacks. Bender will be giving a presentation to the public about his experiences at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16, at the Kansas Learning Center for Health.

By Jared Janzen

HALSTEAD—Twenty years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Jack Bender still gets emotional when he talks about the catastrophe. The memories of those experiences are just as vivid in his mind. He saw and did things he says he’ll absolutely never forget.

Bender’s connection to the attacks was more personal than most Kansans. He spent six weeks that winter volunteering with the American Red Cross near Ground Zero.

“It was very emotional, and the Red Cross was concerned about their workers,” he said. “They advised that everyone get counseling. I met a couple of times with others from this area to just talk ourselves through what we had experienced. I was there in December, and they were still taking people out [of the rubble].”

Jack Bender, center, stands near Ground Zero of the World Trade Center in New York City on Jan. 20, 2002. To the right is a fellow Red Cross volunteer, Marg Holland.

Bender will be giving a presentation about his experiences at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 16, at the Kansas Learning Center for Health.

He served for six weeks, from Dec. 26, 2001 to Feb. 17, 2002. When he first arrived, he didn’t know how long he’d be there or what he’d be doing. He was assigned to a headquarters in New Jersey, working on Liberty Island across the river from the site of the Twin Towers.

“I had many, many responsibilities,” he said. “I ended up being responsible for procurement of food and supplies that we provided to all the different agencies that worked at the disaster center and to the families of victims that came there for assistance.”

He was also in charge of rental cars for Red Cross staff, handled insurance claims, sorted mail, and served lots of meals.

“I worked with a lot of really great people from around the country,” he said.

The relief center he worked at was one of several in the area. He estimated 800 people were coming through their doors in a typical day, though this started to taper toward the end of his service period.

He kept a busy schedule while there. He doesn’t remember having any days off, but he did have some free time that he and other members of the disaster team could use to explore New York. He had been to the city once before on a two-day business trip.

“One of my favorite things was people watching and exploring new places to eat,” he said. “New York City has thousands of restaurants.”

He also enjoyed interacting with the police officers, firefighters and other disaster workers.

“I became friends with quite a few people, and I still, after 20 years, correspond with a few of them,” he said.

He’s in weekly contact with a police psychologist, Rich Aarons, from a Chicago suburb. They email and call each other and talk about anything and everything.

Another standout memory from the experience was getting to go to a private memorial area for visiting government officials or credentialed volunteers. A foreign minister from Russia was there the same time Bender was.

“When he arrived, he had a woman from the mayor’s office with him and a whole bunch of bodyguards,” Bender said. “I have photos of him in here with his big limousine. I made sure I kept my hands out of my pockets.”

The Red Cross received thousands of letters from students all across the country, which were divided amongst volunteers. Bender chose a handful that he kept, and a few of the children he even wrote back to.

Bender has a large box full of his mementos from the experience, including notebooks filled with pictures, newspaper and magazine articles, letters, and printouts of emails.

Jack Bender, dressed in the Red Cross vest he wore when volunteering after the 9/11 attacks, holds up a copy of USA Today showing the iconic flag-raising scene from the attacks.

Bender recalled the memorial wall on Liberty Island that people could sign or leave messages. He made a copy of one of these messages that was written in memory of a man who had grown up on a farm in Kansas, William Caspar. He plans to read that message during his upcoming presentation at the Learning Center.

Bender was volunteering with the Red Cross long before the events of 9/11.

Three days after he graduated from college, Topeka was hit by a tornado, and somehow he found himself aiding the Red Cross’s efforts that night. The director later recruited him and his wife to become emergency workers.

Later in life, after retiring from Boeing, Bender said he was looking for things to do and connected with the Red Cross again on their disaster service team.

“I worked some tornadoes and disasters in Kansas and Mississippi,” he said.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Bender said he immediately wanted to go help.

He hasn’t returned to Ground Zero since his volunteer experience and said he’d never really considered it. He added he hadn’t been able to bring himself to watch the film “Flight 93” about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania.

Bender cited some statistics that more than 56,000 Red Cross disaster workers responded to the catastrophe, 101 of which were from Kansas.

The center he volunteered at was able to close a few weeks after he left, he said. As of March 15, 2002, the Red Cross had written 7,726 checks to 3,284 beneficiaries for an average of $51,681 per beneficiary. This money went toward things like utilities, rent, food, childcare, transportation or travel expenses for those families affected. The Red Cross also served more than 14 million meals and snacks.

To hear more about Bender’s experience with the Red Cross following 9/11, attend his presentation at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16, at the Learning Center in Halstead. The event is free and open to the public.

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