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Kitchen for ground zero workers links Fla. Baptists, Salvation Army

NEW YORK CITY (BP)–Nowhere is the tragedy of the World Trade Center revealed with more rawness than in the eyes of a New York City firefighter. The human toll the Sept. 11 terrorist attack has taken is reflected there, in eyes that still have trouble adjusting to the stark reality that the worst has happened in their city and to their own people.

A team of 16 Florida Baptists met the tremendous grief in their eyes the week of Oct. 15-19 with eyes of compassion and hands ready to work around the clock.

Two blocks outside of the ground zero perimeter, the Floridians were there to greet the workers with hot meals and warm words of encouragement, joining a team of Salvation Army volunteers to prepare and serve 7,500 meals a day.

The Salvation Army provided the equipment, food and serving line volunteers. The Florida Baptist team prepared the meals.

This was the first time Southern Baptists have worked directly with the Salvation Army, which invited Southern Baptists to form an initial 30-day partnership. The Floridians were the first Southern Baptist team to work under this new partnership and be stationed this close to ground zero.

“Florida Baptists were selected by the North American Mission Board’s Disaster Relief arm to lead the way in this partnership because of the level of experience of Florida’s disaster relief workers,” said Fritz Wilson, coordinator of Florida Baptists’ disaster relief. “Several team members have worked together during major hurricane recovery efforts within the last 10 years, including Hurricane Andrew.”

The Tampa Salvation Army provided a base unit kitchen for the effort and played a role in the selection of Florida Baptists to operate the unit, Wilson said.

From Pensacola to Miami, the Florida team represented a cross-section of disaster relief volunteers so that no local disaster relief team would be short staffed in case of an emergency at home, Wilson said.

Spanning an age range of 34 to 73, many of the members were retirees with flexible travel schedules. Others took vacation time away from their jobs to participate.

Ken Melvin, from Eastside Baptist Church in Marianna, Fla., said the majority of his vacation days are spent on disaster relief training or deployment.

Team member James Outler, president of Bonifay’s volunteer firefighters association, said he also is on call with the Bonifay fire department for possible assignment to the New York City recovery efforts.

“I never would have imagined that I would be called out to come here because I was a Florida Baptist first and a firefighter second,” said Outler, a member of West Bonifay Baptist Church. “But it worked out for the good. In some ways, it’s even better.

“As a firefighter, I know that working for more than a month on any situation, but especially this one, takes a toll on the firefighters. It wears you down. It wears you out. It wears you physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. And as a Florida Baptist, I can address all of these needs.”

The volunteers were stationed at the Manhattan intersection of West and Murray streets, the last security checkpoint before entering ground zero. They set up under tents in what was formerly a left turn lane leading to the World Trade Center.

The team worked around the clock on two 12-hour shifts. The feeding station attracted a diverse array of recovery workers, from crime scene investigators and mayor’s office workers to military guards and demolition equipment operators.

The volunteers worked under the shadow of towering cranes during the day and the glow of giant spotlights illuminating the cranes at night. Neither the relief workers nor the disaster relief volunteers slowed down their operations at night. They worked through the wind, rain and cold that thunderstorms brought in several days that week.

As temperatures dropped into the 40s, sometimes the only warmth came from operating the ovens and the coffee makers. Shaking off minor injuries, such as surface burns, strained muscles and sore wrists from lifting heavy containers, the team kept a whatever-it-takes attitude.

“Experience means a lot here,” said John Layman, call-out dispatcher for Florida Baptists’ Panhandle disaster relief team. “These guys are experienced and exceptional. We have gotten to know one another and work together well.

“Everyone wants to do something,” said Layman, a member of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola. “We’re glad we’re able to do this. We’re not here to get credit, but to do a job that needs to be done.”

Despite their behind-the-scenes role, the team’s cooperative effort to help the workers didn’t go unnoticed.

“We couldn’t do this without ya’ll,” said Todd Tatum, an Arkansas firefighter and paramedic as he picked up a vat of coffee to take to workers at ground zero. “You are awesome. We don’t know anyone besides ya’ll that could have done a better job.”

Partner Brody Hubbard added, “Everything back here is so smooth. You have it so together. It’s really helping us out.”

After spotting the team’s bright yellow jackets with the Florida Baptist disaster relief logo on the back, an NYPD officer pulled up to the team’s station for help.

“Can you be my salvation today?” the officer asked. “I need some medical supplies desperately.” The team quickly collected two boxes of Salvation Army gauze and ointment for the officer, who needed the supplies to attend to minor injuries a few ground zero workers had sustained.

The police officer knew to ask for help from Florida Baptists, he said, because he had seen them in action in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew while he was a supplies transport officer for the U.S. Army’s efforts there.

Gelling in their efforts, the disaster relief team also developed a reputation in the feeding station for being able to work quickly and efficiently.

“Florida Baptists have something to be proud of in their disaster relief team,” said Lt. Col. Gilbert St. Onge, Ontario North Division commander of the Salvation Army in Canada, who oversaw operation of the feeding station. “You have a great bunch of people here. I sense from them an enthusiasm that they are sharing with us. It’s very tense here, very intense. We’re working long hours, and you are working them alongside us.

“It’s very important when you call out a team, to bring people in with experience, not just in serving meals but in the spiritual aspect. We have to be ready to share with our actions. The Florida team has the concept of that. It’s a ministry. This kind of service is where the rubber meets the road. We’re preaching here. We’re preaching through our actions.”

The tight working conditions necessitated that the teams be able to work closely together, with only a five-foot clearance between the ovens and supply units in some places. The space constrictions made crossing each other’s path while carrying food and supplies a delicate balancing act.

During peak meal times, a stream of Florida’s gold jackets flowed in a flurry of activity among the red jackets of Salvation Army volunteers, working in tandem to get the job done.

“We’ve kept up with the demand during the crunch times,” Floridian James Outler said. “Our team anticipated each other’s moves. If one of us opened a box and took something out of it, another stepped in and cleared it away and handed us another one. It saved us a lot of time by being able to work so attuned to each other. I’m proud of our team and have a new respect for the Salvation Army.”

(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net.

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  • Kristi Hodge