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On Thanksgiving, disaster work goes on

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE, MD | November 21, 2001

"Even people who lost everything are thankful."

—Bill McCoy

This year Bill McCoy will

spend Thanksgiving hundreds of miles from his home in

Oregon, removing soggy drywall out of West Virginia

homes that were flooded in July and haven't been

habitable since.

McCoy, one of eight volunteers from Mennonite Disaster

Service (MDS), said the team chose long ago to work on

Thanksgiving "because the work's important enough to get

it done."

It's not easy work, either. There are few things that

feel heavier than soggy drywall. And, in many houses in

the Northfork, WV area where the volunteers are working,

coal dust from years of using coal-burning heaters has

collected between the drywall and frame. The volunteers

emerge blackened, dusty, and tired.

After putting in eight hours on Thanksgiving, the

volunteers will share a turkey dinner prepared by two

volunteer cooks that travel with them. They'll also

share a new realization of what it means to give thanks.

Many Northfork residents have a strong faith, said

McCoy. "Even people who lost everything are thankful

that the flood hit during the day and not at night, or

they wouldn't be here at all. It's remarkable they're

thankful because they lost everything. But they say 'at

least we have our lives.' "

That's not the case for everyone, mused Joann Hale, a

Church World Service disaster response facilitator who

spent weeks in New York City responding to needs in the

wake of Sept. 11.

Hale will spend Thanksgiving with her family in Grand

Island, NY. But it's not a day off, she said, because

when you work in the field of disaster response, "it's

never out of our minds."

On Thanksgiving and other holidays, Hale said, "you look

at the newspaper and you hope that rainstorm -- wherever

it is -- stops."

This year, she said, "you think how thankful you are

that your family is together. But there are so many

people in New York and Washington, DC who won't have

that same blessing. You keep thinking about them. It's

their first Thanksgiving they're spending without the

loved ones they lost Sept. 11."

Hale said if people want to give of themselves this

Thanksgiving, they should make sure their local food

pantry is well stocked. Many local charities and food

pantries have been running short of funding and

donations since people are focused on responding to

Sept. 11, Hale said.

"We had a group of well-meaning people recently who

wanted to send baked goods to ground zero," she said.

"But it's difficult to ship things like that and

difficult to gain access to ground zero right now. The

fires there are still burning. I asked them to give

their contribution to the local food pantry in honor of

those who perished and those still working on cleanup."

Many firefighters will spend Thanksgiving on the job not

only in New York City but also in states throughout the

tinder-dry south, which is facing a bad fire season.

In Kentucky, 40 blazes are still burning, but a little

much-needed rain has helped firefighters bring them

under control -- for the time being, said Gwen Holt,

spokesperson for the Kentucky Division of Forestry.

Kentucky firefighter Bill Curnette will be at work this

year on Thanksgiving. "I've been with the Division of

Forestry since 1987, and I think I've spent three

Thanksgivings at home," he said. Curnette and some 50 of

his fellow firefighters will eat a turkey dinner

together Wednesday evening before spending Thanksgiving

on the fire lines.

Bill Paxton -- who flew to Kentucky from his home near

Tallahassee, FL to help in the fire fighting effort --

is one of the lucky ones who will make it home for

Thanksgiving. "I told my wife I'd be home by 4 o'clock."

Paxton said that being part of the "Red Team" - a

specially trained incident command unit pulled from many

states to help fight fires or respond to other disasters

- often means getting called out on holidays he'd rather

spend with his wife and two sons, ages 12 and 13. "I had

reservations at Sea World and Bush Gardens but had to

cancel them when I got called to Kentucky."

But his sons are proud of him, added Paxton. "One wants

to be a firefighter and the other wants to be a

landscape architect."

Firefighters will also work over Thanksgiving in

Tennessee, where wildfires have burned tens of thousands

of acres, said Robin Bible, spokesperson for the

Tennessee Department of Agriculture. "But it's one of

those cases where we'll try to get everybody off the

fire line early."

The holiday comes at a time when many firefighters in

Tennessee are remembering a lost comrade who died when

wildfires were at their worst last week. "It's on

everybody's mind. We think about his family. He had two

kids," said Bible.

Bible and his team are also thinking about others who

won't be home for Thanksgiving. "We think a lot about

the troops who were called to the war in Afghanistan. At

least we usually know when we're coming home. They


It's also a time when many people -- even those in the

midst of responding to disasters -- think about how

thankful they are to live in a free country, said Ellis

Wystra, a Church World Service disaster resource

facilitator based in Michigan. "Our thoughts go out to

the people who are putting their lives back together

from Sept. 11 or from any other disaster -- people in

West Virginia or Houston, Texas. On holidays, you're

always wondering, 'how are those people doing?' "

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