Rescue & Recovery at 20: Dr. Alison Thompson, Civilian Relief Worker

  • May 26, 2022
A woman with blonde hair in a blue hard hat tends to a man in a chair with his head bent back, amid a backdrop of rubble

Here is New York Collection, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Here is New York

September 11th would ultimately become the start of Dr. Alison Thompson's career as a full-time humanitarian first responder. She went on to found Third Wave Volunteers, assisting with disaster relief around the world and helping to run refugee camps, field hospitals, and resilience hubs - most recently in Ukraine.  

As part of our ongoing series marking the 20th anniversary of the formal end to rescue and recovery operations at Ground Zero, Thompson shares her recollections of the grueling months she spent volunteering at the site. 

Where were you on 9/11?  
I was in my apartment on 84th Street and York Avenue when the news of the World Trade Center attack broke. I rollerbladed eight miles downtown to the site with a first aid kit to help. I was giving CPR near the North Tower when it collapsed and tried to race back uptown, away from the giant plume of smoke that was trying to engulf us. After hiding under a mail delivery truck, I crawled out into the smoky darkness. The world was now black and white and I slowly walked back down towards the World Trade Center to see how I could help. We were all then shuffled to City Hall where we were divided into military and medical groups. We were then driven by a police officer via a New York City bus to a staging area on the Westside Highway. It was around 5:30 p.m. after the collapse of Building 7, and there was much waiting around, when we finally went back to Ground Zero. We found ourselves staring into the gates of hell wondering what to do. It was as if a giant vile beast had risen up from under the ground and scorched everything in its path.   

What role did you play in the rescue, recovery, and relief efforts?  
I lived on the streets for the first five days after the attacks, with EMS worker Michael Voudouris and a small group of nurse volunteers. We worked as first responders washing out hundreds of firefighters’ eyes at the FDNY 10 House and helped with the bucket brigade searching for survivors. We then worked a block away giving medical triage to firefighters and police officers. We rigged flashlights over our heads with ropes and sat on the floor with bags of saline. The first responders spoke of friends who had died and how much they loved their wives.  

That first week we searched tirelessly for our stolen friends. Then, after five days of no sleep, I rollerbladed home and spent four days recovering before signing up with American Red Cross Respite 1 at St John’s University on Warren Street in lower Manhattan. Here, I aided rescue and recovery workers at Ground Zero for another nine months until its official closing on May 30th. 

Can you describe the bond between yourself and other recovery workers? How has this community impacted you?  
Mark Twain said, “The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why." I found out my “why” on September 11, 2001.  

It was then that we became front-line soldiers working in a war on American soil. Ground Zero became a city within a city - a city where I witnessed individuals crying rivers, and when we saw each other, we would give each other that "Ground Zero look" as if to say, ”I understand you.” It was a solemn look with no words, hard to describe to outsiders.  

Everyone became a close-knit family, and we watched each other’s backs. We worked 24/7 and no one wanted to stop. I became good friends with a retired fire chief looking for his missing firefighter son. He would sit next to me at lunch and talk about how tomorrow was always a new day to find his son. He broke our hearts, but we hugged him and encouraged him not to give up.  

On May 30th, at the formal ceremony concluding the operations at Ground Zero, many of the workers who had been there since the beginning were unable to attend. With our heads down and our hearts heavy with disappointment, we gathered instead on the Westside Highway to watch. As the first responders and bagpipers from the ceremony slowly made their way up the Westside Highway, hearing us cheer them on, they stopped. Recognizing us from the long hours of working alongside them, they motioned for the procession to turn their heads in our direction. They saluted us and threw their hats up into the air in respect. It is a moment etched into my brain forever along with dozens of other images that I’m reminded of daily.  

A true family never forgets each other.  

What does May 30th mean to you?  
May 30th is a day of closure for many of us at Ground Zero. No one wanted to stop working until the last beam and last human remains had been removed. It was a day that ended what seemed like a lifetime of work. It was a day to finally breathe again and weep for our friends whose lives were stolen that day. Those nine months after the attacks had felt like I was stuck in some sort of Groundhog's Day and it wasn’t until May 30th that I could finally move forward into my future where nothing would remain the same again.    

Do you have any health issues connected to your time at Ground Zero?  
Since my time at Ground Zero, my lung capacity has greatly diminished. I have had numerous skin cancers and now have an autoimmune disease. I do not regret a single day I spent there, though, and would gladly give my life so that others may live.  

Why is it important to share your story - and the stories of others - with the generation that is now growing up with no memory of September 11th? 
September 11, 2001 should be remembered not only for the thousands of people who were killed that day, but for the over 30,000 people who were saved by great acts of local heroism. Over a million volunteers signed up to help after 9/11. There was a great hope for humanity where countries from all over the world stood together as one to help their fellow mankind. 

On 9/11 and in the days that followed, everyone stepped up. From the lawyer who carried heavy buckets of water from the Hudson River to keep our only toilet at Ground Zero working to the 88-year-old grandma who drove all the way from Chicago because she knew people would need tea, to the school children who wrote profound letters to the rescue workers -  no one was too young or old to help. 

I share my story to show others that out of such darkness came light. Also, so many first responders and volunteers were inspired by 9/11 and their time at Ground Zero to help others around the world in other disasters.  

Compiled by Caitlyn Best, Government and Community Affairs Coordinator

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Suffolk County detective Phil Alvarez lost his brother Luis, an NYPD detective who spent months at Ground Zero, to 9/11-related cancer. In today's installment of our series highlighting those involved in and impacted by the unprecedented rescue and recovery efforts, Alvarez recalls his own experience and how his brother's ordeal led him to a life of advocacy in the years after the attacks. 

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Anthony Palmieri, a Department of Sanitation worker, was uptown the morning of September 11th and managed to make it home to New Jersey later that day. But it wasn't long before he was back in the city, playing an integral role in the rescue and recovery effort at Ground Zero. Here, Palmieri answers some questions about the nine months he spent there and what May 30th means to him.  

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