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Wichitan helped with daunting 9/11 rescue efforts

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Sep. 9, 2011, at 3:45 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, at 1:34 p.m.

Rancid smells. Choking dust. Abandoned baby strollers. A woman's shoe.

Strangers working as a team to help others. A deli converted into a triage center. A bank serving as a first aid supply station.

Those are but a few of the memories Erin Williams has of the two days she spent a decade ago as a volunteer in the rescue efforts at ground zero after 9/11.

A month later, she filled a steno pad with those thoughts and impressions during a five-hour cross-country flight from Virginia to San Diego.

"I just let it loose," Williams said. "I felt better."

A shortened version of that journal can be found attached to this story.

If you were following Wichita high school softball in the early 1990s, you knew Williams as Erin Calvert, the sweet-hitting second baseman and catcher who played for Kapaun Mount Carmel. She would make second-team All-American in softball — and sing in the choir — at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Ten years ago, she was a 25-year-old lieutenant junior grade on temporary assignment in Yorktown, Va., taking a class on how to plan for natural disasters and conduct mass rescue.

Sept. 11, 2001, was a Tuesday, the second day of class. Williams and two classmates, LaTarsha McQueen and Michael Weaver, left after class on Friday afternoon to make the eight-hour drive to New York City. They had to be back to Yorktown by Sunday night.

In between, they were part of the massive volunteer effort dug into the destruction and pain brought about by the terrorist attack.

They did the little things, not the sort of stuff that makes headlines.

McQueen worked in public affairs. Weaver used his construction background to help run saws, cutting into steel to remove bodies.

Williams' efforts ranged from putting batteries in flashlights in a Burger King to helping set up a triage center in a deli.

"We all could bring something to the table," she said. "We just wanted to help."

About 18 months earlier, Williams had been part of the Coast Guard's response to Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which crashed off the coast of California, killing all 88 people aboard. She was hoping this time she would rescue someone "rather than just stand watch and feel helpless."

She and her friends didn't physically rescue anyone at ground zero. Indeed, the last survivor was found at 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 12. But as Williams wrote in her journal, "Hopefully, we made a small bit of difference."

To be sure, the experience left her with unforgettable memories.

"I'll never forget the smell," she said.

Or seeing an exhausted firefighter sitting at a table.

"I can't even describe the look on his face," she said. "And here I was just going for a couple of days."

Those two days would also change her life.

Plans to get married became more urgent. She and Neal Williams were married in January 2002.

"It hit home with us," she said. "Why sit around and wait?"

They now have four children — three girls ages 5 to 9, and a 2-year-old boy. She is a lieutenant commander stationed at the Coast Guard base in Valdez, Alaska.

There were other changes.

"For starters, my entire world of work has changed," Williams said.

Prior to 9/11, the Coast Guard's primary mission was search and rescue. Now the focus has shifted to maritime security.

She looks at her children and realizes they have never lived in peace time.

"There has always been war since I was pregnant with my 9-year-old," she said. "I remember what peace feels like, but unfortunately I don't have the confidence that my children will ever have the opportunity to share that feeling with me."

That point was driven home by a traveling experience she had when her son was 4 months old. En route from Washington, D.C., to Valdez, an airport security officer made her remove her son's shoes.

"We as a nation are so obsessed with fear," Williams said. "Don't get me wrong. I completely understand the need to have security regulations and measures in place.

"But for my children, this is normal life. They know no differently."

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

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