New York City firefighters presented a flag from Ground Zero to MIT's Gayle Willman yesterday in an emotional tribute honoring MIT volunteers who helped care for recovery workers at St. Paul's chapel in New York.
"I feel very honored," said Willman, the faculty liasion for Academic Media Production Services, who organized the volunteers. "And I'm still caught off guard by the whole thing."
Firefighters Mike Bellone and Bob Barrett, who worked 257 consecutive days recovering bodies and body parts from the debris, presented the flag to Willman at the end of a four-hour event Sunday in which they shared their experiences of the tragedy with the audience in Room 10-250.
"Without you, we couldn't do our jobs," Bellone told the volunteers.
New York City sanitation worker Andrew Macchio sang "America the Beautiful" a cappella through his tears, just as he did at Ground Zero on Sundays. Macchio's job during the recovery effort was to drive a water truck through the debris to hose down the clouds of dust at Ground Zero.
Children who attended the MIT event were encouraged to hold tools like those used in the recovery effort and don the firefighters' helmets and jackets, which still carry the smell of smoke.
"The smell of his jacket brings it all back to me," said Sister Grace of the Society of St. Margaret, an Episcopalian order based in Roxbury with a house in New York three blocks from St. Paul's. Sister Grace spent nine months as the pastoral coordinator at St. Paul's, where recovery workers ate, slept and sought refuge.
MIT volunteers took buses to the site to work 12-hour shifts at St. Paul's, serving food, dispensing hugs and listening. The volunteers also raised money to purchase boots and socks for the recovery workers, who needed dry socks several times a day and new boots several times a week.
"It became like a family," said Willman.