The Journal Gazette
Saturday, September 11, 2021 1:00 am

Volunteers felt need to serve after 9/11 attacks

JIM CHAPMAN | The Journal Gazette

Peggy Creek says she gets goosebumps thinking about it 20 years later.

John Hamrick is still trying to find the woman who gave him cookies and $20 that helped him get home.

Ed Keller still has the hard hat his wife, Sarah, wore that was signed by rescue workers from ground zero.

Creek, Hamrick and Sarah Keller were living in Allen County when they decided at a moment's notice to go to New York to help with recovery efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I told my husband 'I'd better start packing,' ” said Creek, 81, a retired Red Cross disaster nurse who lives with her husband, Duane, just north of Fort Wayne.

Even though most flights were canceled after the attacks, the Red Cross arranged for Creek to fly to Philadelphia. She arrived by train in New York on the Friday after the Tuesday attacks.

She worked at Red Cross headquarters in Brooklyn, where her job was to care for workers who were injured or ill. She remembered two Red Cross workers who were hospitalized – one because of a fall and the other because of his diabetes. 

Her hotel was in Times Square. 

“We were all scattered. I just happened to get that one,” she said. “It was very impressive.”

On her days off, she never went too far from her hotel and made sure she knew the way back.

She fondly remembers how the locals treated her during her 41/2-week stay. New Yorkers “had a reputation of having an attitude. I didn't see that,” she said.

Hamrick was at a hardware store on North Anthony Boulevard when he learned about the attacks. He was a firefighter based at Fort Wayne Fire Station 10 at North Anthony and Crescent Avenue at the time, and in 2000 he started Team R&R, a not-for-profit disaster assistance organization.  R&R stands for rescue and recovery.

“In a moment's notice, I pretty much put my life on hold,” he said.

Hamrick, who then lived in Leo-Cedarville, told the fire department of his plans and stopped by Leo Junior-Senior High School to tell his daughter. 

He arrived in New Jersey early the next morning and took a water taxi to New York City.

“When I got there, I just followed the herd of everybody walking,” said Hamrick, 60.

He was put to work manning a fire hose, extinguishing spot fires that were still burning. He spent the next few days helping officials find human remains, including those on top of buildings near the World Trade Center.

A woman named Joy brought him fresh-baked cookies when he returned to New Jersey each afternoon.

On Saturday, the day before he left, she gave him a bag of cookies and a $20 bill.

That helped get him home because the money he brought for the trip was running out. 

When he arrived home, he called the fire department to see how many days he had to make up because he was gone.

He returned to New York a year later.

“I needed to go back for closure for myself,” said Hamrick, who hasn't found Joy since he left in 2001. He has spoken to schools about his experience.

Hamrick retired from the fire department in 2011 and has lived in Key West, Florida, the last five years.

Another firefighter, Ed Keller, asked his wife, Sarah, a Red Cross volunteer, not to go to New York, but she went anyway.

She served beverages to firefighters, police officers and others from an emergency response vehicle five blocks from ground zero.

When she went to take photos one day, police wouldn't let her get closer than three blocks from ground zero. She then showed them a photo of her husband, a retired firefighter who used to work at Fire Station 6 on Coliseum Boulevard West.

They allowed her to walk to ground zero, where rescue workers signed her hard hat.

“When she came back, she was coughing a lot,” Ed Keller said. “It got worse.”

An occasional smoker, Sarah died in 2010 at age 71 from pulmonary fibrosis of the lungs. Although he said he can't prove it, Ed Keller suspects the dust and fumes his wife breathed while in New York City contributed to her condition.

Richard Loney, who worked alongside Sarah Keller, said he is being treated for skin cancer that doctors believe is connected to the conditions at ground zero. His treatment is being paid for because of that, he said.

Loney, who will soon turn 90, remembers the long lines or people holding photos of missing loved ones and friends.

After 20 years, Creek said she would volunteer for the same mission if she could. 

But at 81, she'll leave that to a younger group of volunteers.

“I'm just thankful it's never happened again, and I hope it never does.”

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