By SHELLEY NASH
Ground Zero, the name given to the former site of the World Trade Center, is 3,000 miles and a world away for most Oregonians. But for Pete Celli, it is much closer it is in his mind and heart.
Celli recently returned to Brookings from a 16-day volunteer stint at Ground Zero with the Salvation Army.
A volunteer for years with the organization, Celli was asked to journey to New York and work as a site supervisor.
His duties included working at the makeshift morgue the New York Medical Examiner's Office had set up not far from Ground Zero. Celli was in charge of the Salvation Army volunteers who were serving food and getting supplies to the fire and police personnel.
Celli also served as a counselor of sorts to the rescue personnel.
"My job was to listen more than talk," he said.
The makeshift morgue was next to Engine 10, Ladder 10, a firehouse that suffered the most losses Sept. 11, Celli said.
"Those guys are hard to even talk to. The memories and the losses are so heavy," he said.
For one member of the rescue personnel, the memories and losses were too much to bear. A 24-year-old EMT committed suicide two days before Celli left New York.
Celli said the young man was a "tough guy who said he didn't need help."
The firefighters and EMTs working at Ground Zero had the unenviable job of sorting through the rubble for human remains. A front loader would shake the debris into the hole where the World Trade Center once sat. Firefighters would sort through the debris with rakes.
Any remains found were given to EMTs who transferred them to the makeshift morgue. The remains were placed in one of 18 refrigerated trucks where they awaited identification through DNA testing.
"It was very dignified," Celli said.
The trucks also contained tables and ramps and were the site of memorial services, where bagpipes were played.
"I heard those bagpipes so many times when I was there. (They played) Amazing Grace,' (and) God Bless America.' "
During one of the memorial services, an elderly woman asked Celli to assist her in carrying her candle.
"She was so broken up, she couldn't do it herself. There's not much to say other than a hug.
"I dealt with people looking for or trying to ID what they had. One mom and dad kept coming back every day. The pain on their faces...," Celli said.
Although there is still a lot of searching and mourning in New York City, Celli said he thinks the city is adjusting.
"I think for the most part (its) adjusting. It's a real shock. (They) are starting to settle in on the reality of it it's all so immense," he said.
The residual effects of Sept. 11 are seen in large and small ways in the city.
"I saw many a New Yorker who would look up when they heard an airplane flying over," Celli said.
Despite the tragedy of Sept. 11, the city moves on.
"It's a different way of living. In New York City, there's no quiet. There's noise 24 hours a day," he said.
At the suggestion of a firefighter chaplain, Celli went to the St. Francis of Assisi Chapel each night, where he said he found peace and quiet.
Although he found the city "very un-Brookings like," he said he enjoyed the people.
"There are a lot of beautiful people there. Once you asked a question or smiled (their) shell cracked," he said.
Celli also enjoyed the people who volunteered with him. He met people from all over the country including a firefighter from Michigan. Many people traded lapel pins and other items with each other. The firefighter from Michigan sent Celli a firehouse T-shirt.
Celli's son is a policeman in Santa Rosa, Calif., and upon finding that out, the police officers in New York gave Celli several lapel pins that are given only to New York City officers. They asked that he give the pins to his son.
An equipment operator at the site gave Celli pieces of glass that came from World Trade Center windows.
"(It was his) way of saying thanks. There were all kinds of gestures like that," Celli said.
Volunteering at Ground Zero has brought Celli memories and gratitude to the Salvation Army and the rescue personnel.
"I have a greater admiration and respect for the Salvation Army, for people like police officers and firefighters who are so brave and so willing to do what they did.
"I hope they can heal from what they've been through," he said.
The Salvation Army is making an effort to help them heal, Celli said.
In addition to providing volunteers to the Ground Zero effort, the Salvation Army also provided food, supplies and American flags.
"Flags accompanying the remains at Ground Zero were provided by the Salvation Army. Most of all (the organization) provided love and compassion," Celli said.
For Celli, volunteering at Ground Zero was more than a trip to New York, it was a spiritual experience.
"It was a wonderful spiritual experience. It was a gift and an honor to be asked to go, to do something in a small way when so much has to be done," Celli said.
He added that the Salvation Army has many volunteer opportunities. Locally, one of those opportunities is bell ringing during the holiday season. Bell ringers are unpaid volunteers and all the money they earn stays in Brookings, Celli said.
For information on volunteering, call (541) 469-9577.