Quiet Acts of Kindness

Stories from the WNYC Archives

Saturday, August 20, 2011

As part of The Requiem Project, we've been searching the WNYC archives for voices that offer perspective on 9/11 and help us better understand the world in which we now live. The stories that immediately stood out to me were of volunteers who for months helped feed, clothe and comfort the people working at the site. "We have to understand that their existence in millions for each evil act is what keeps us going," the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould told WNYC's Marianne McCune.

"It's the nature of complex systems that they can be easily destroyed," he explained. "[T]o build a complex, well-functioning system of kindness and decency needs thousands of tiny little steps – you can't put it together as quickly as you can take it apart." That's why these stories, he said, "aren't just to buoy our hopes. There's really a serious point there." (Gould's wife Rhonda Shearer led her own relief supply effort.)

McCune was one of several WNYC reporters to cover the tragedy as it happened. For months afterward, she profiled some of the many, many people taking care of the workers at the World Trade Center site. Her stories broadcast in late 2001 on WNYC, and there are hours of tape that didn't make it to air. Ten years later, her subjects' observations are still just as poignant – in some ways, maybe moreso.

Just days into the relief effort, star chef David Bouley opened up a makeshift restaurant near the site – it offered people working on the pile an alternative to the cold sandwiches and fast food they'd been eating during their sometimes four-day shifts. At one point, the staff estimated serving 45,000 meals per day, including poached salmon and chocolate mousse. And they served them in a special dining hall with communal tables (quickly nicknamed “The Green Tarp” for its décor). A volunteer named Holly Bart remembered a conversation she had with one of the diners, a fireman.

Five weeks after the attacks, massage therapist Donna DeFalco and her team of volunteers were still taking shifts to attend to firemen and other workers. They'd set up shop in a firehouse near the site. DeFalco transformed a room into "a safehouse" with candles and music. When one fireman joked that all he was missing was a beach, a colleague brought sand from the Hamptons so he could step off the massage table and onto the sand, "like he was at the beach in Hawaii." DeFalco described the changes in the muscles she treated. (The fireman you hear is Pat Zoda.)

Do you remember a small, unexpected act of kindness in the days following 9/11?  Tell us in a comment below.

Audio gathered by WNYC's Marianne McCune and edited by Studio 360's Jenny Lawton.

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