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IN A DISASTER, THE BUFFALO TRADITION OF HELPING OUT

When that plane went through the second tower the morning of Sept. 11, that was it for me.

I couldn't sit powerlessly through another TV vigil. Not when they bombed the neighborhood. This time it was personal. This time I was so full of indignation and aggression, I had to do something.

I loaded my pockets with what I imagined to be essentials and walked over to St. Vincent's Hospital, the medical command center and the major hospital closest to the World Trade Center.

St. Vincent's was so well-prepared that by late morning they were turning volunteers away. Psychotherapists - the natural resource of Greenwich Village - were even turned away. But somehow, possibly because I volunteered to do any non-special thing and probably because I had worked on an in-house film for the hospital and knew my way around, I was given a security pass.

It is probably unfair, but I get annoyed when people praise me for volunteering at St. Vincent's. I was born and bred in Buffalo, where crippling snowstorms create local emergencies on a regular basis.

My father, grandmother and cousins have all been active in community service in Buffalo. When the Nov. 20 blizzard struck last year, my cousin went out in his truck in the dead of the night to rescue people stuck in their cars - and it was, to him, no big deal.

We are not a family of heroes, nor are we unique, but we have learned how to be good citizens in a blizzard.

I doubt there has ever been a blizzard as devastating as this attack, but the spirit of community is comparable. Downtown, where I live, it seemed that all New Yorkers took immediate action to take care of our neighbors, our brave police and firefighters and the city we love.

St. Vincent's is a major part of the New York Catholic establishment, right down to the names on the buildings and the lovely, efficient nuns who manage one of the best nursing staffs of any New York hospital. One nurse, on her vacation, who was neither young nor thin, decided to walk from mid-Brooklyn across the vast Williamsburg Bridge to Seventh Avenue and 12th Street. It took hours.

St. Vincent's is New York City to the bone. It is a top trauma center, with strong connections to the neighborhood. The emergency room staff is black, white, yellow, brown and plaid. They also are organized, energized, ready for anything.

That day, rows and rows of stretchers were ready to go, waiting for the injured. But they remained empty. I stood there three-deep with the dozens of extra nurses, technicians, surgeons, fine-tuned specialists of every kind - doing nothing.

I wanted to do something, so when the head of security asked that the ER waiting room be cleared of anyone who had been released, that's what I did. These people had miraculously escaped the initial blasts with "minor injuries" and were unsure where to go next.

There was some crying, some agitation and a lot of silent shock, but their stories were all equally, horrifically unimaginable. And there I am trying to be comforting with my little hugs and artlessly repeating, "Oh my God" and "how awful."

My task was to figure out what these people needed to move them out of an area we expected would be filled to capacity any minute. Anthony, a panicky elderly Jamaican man whose arm had just been stitched together, wanted to go home to New Jersey. We got him a shirt and shoes from the clothing bank and I turned him over to the people who were helping people get home, or giving them a meal and a place to sit and wait.

Florence was crying and could not calm down. She'd been at work on the 78th floor of the second tower when the plane tore straight through the other side of her floor, ripping it open to the sky. She and a friend managed to run down 78 flights and out of the building just before it fell on everyone. She wandered barefoot to the hospital where she could not stop crying and quietly telling her story. We walked over to the psych department where a therapist met Florence.

By afternoon the emergency room was so quiet it was eerie. The staff remained gloved, waiting for ambulances that rarely arrived. A few ER doctors were riveted to Internet images of Palestinians partying on the West Bank. A young Orthodox Jewish volunteer in a yarmulke passed out ham-and-cheese sandwiches in this Catholic hospital. Maintenance men kept the place immaculate. Outside in the sun there were hundreds of media members, volunteers waiting to donate blood, people bringing food, drink and "I Love NY" T-shirts. Priests milled about with prayer book and sash, prepared to give Last Rites. Inside, nothing was happening.

They had been busy earlier in the day, but once the buildings fell on the rescue crews, everything stopped.

I didn't know, when I volunteered, that it would be so tragically calm. In fact I was afraid of the mayhem and gore. But going there was not so brave. It was probably, in some way, selfish on my part; a way to vent my fury and frustration in a positive way; avoiding the enormity of it all by addressing the situation on a manageable scale of a couple dozen of the moderately injured.

I got to spend the day doing simple, easy things for people who really needed help, surrounded by a community of healers and no TV. It was only when I got home and started watching TV that things really started to get to me.

Lauren Lowenthal, a native of Buffalo and graduate of the Buffalo Seminary, recently moved to New York City from Los Angeles.

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