Feature story: Double duty

How local Red Cross volunteers responded to a simultaneous double disaster

The author of this story, Barbara Wood, is a resident of Woodside who has been a Red Cross volunteer since 2006 and a Red Cross disaster responder since 2008.

By Barbara Wood

Special to the Almanac

On Saturday, July 6, at about 11:30 a.m., Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashed at San Francisco International Airport and burst into flames. Within minutes of the news, the local Red Cross responded and by the end of the day had nearly 70 volunteers and employees hard at work.

A little more than 14 hours later and 16 miles away, at 1:45 a.m. Sunday, July 7, a six-alarm fire was reported in a 72-unit apartment complex in Redwood City, displacing more than 100 residents. Within hours the Red Cross was staffing, first, an evacuation center and then a shelter for those residents who had no place to go. By the end of the day nearly 40 Red Cross workers had joined in the response.

It took 100 firefighters from eight agencies (including the Menlo Park and Woodside fire protection districts), 23 engines, five ladder trucks and 4 million gallons of water to put out the fire, according to Malcolm Smith, a spokesman for Redwood City.

Both Red Cross responses continued for weeks. This is the story of how local volunteers helped the Red Cross handle the two incidents.

==B'Jill' Chen-Kuendig's story==

When Red Cross disaster mental health volunteer Chih-Mei "Jill" Chen-Kuendig learned there had just been a crash at SFO, she knew what to do, because in September she had been part of an airline crash drill.

Ms. Chen-Kuendig, a marriage and family therapist doing post-doctoral work with traumatized children who speaks Mandarin, Taiwanese and some Cantonese, was soon sent to the airport.

She volunteered without hesitation, despite the fact that she had both an arm and a leg in a cast after a fall at home.

Ms. Chen-Kuendig soon found herself in high demand, especially by many of the nearly 70 Chinese students, ages 13-17, who were on the flight. "They really needed someone who speaks their language," she says.

She also translated and offered counseling for other passengers, the FBI, the airlines and Homeland Security.

She assured those she was helping that "the Red Cross will be there for them," she says. She also helped them find others to continue working with them once home.

"I am just a bridge, helping them connect to resources," says Ms. Chen-Kuendig, a Montara resident. "For me, I am just honored to serve those people and be a good helping hand for them."

Despite already having volunteered many hours at the airport, Ms. Chen-Kuendig continued to help there through the night in the center where passengers were being interviewed. At 8 a.m. the next morning (Sunday, July 7), she returned to the Red Cross headquarters that had been set up in Burlingame.

There, other Red Cross volunteers had to convince Ms. Chen-Kuendig to go home and sleep before returning to help again, which she did on Monday, after work, when the families of the students who had died on the flight arrived and needed her counsel.

Then, on Wednesday evening after work, Ms. Chen-Kuendig spent five hours at the National Guard Armory in Redwood City that had been set up as a shelter for people left homeless by the apartment-complex fire.

"I was really able to connect with the residents," she says.

Red Cross volunteers were on-site around the clock, helped by volunteers from local Lions clubs who were trained as shelter workers. "I think it's just teamwork," Ms. Chen-Kuendig says.

Peggy Bogart's story

Woodside resident Peggy Bogart had taken Red Cross disaster training classes but had been in the Burlingame Red Cross office only once before she found herself helping with a major disaster the day after the crash.

In two weeks, more than 200 volunteers from the Bay Area and other Northern California towns, and as far away as Los Angeles, pitched in to help with both emergencies.

"Some people just reach so deep to help other people," she says. "It makes you want to help also."

On Monday afternoon, July 8, when she was scheduled to resume her caseworker training, Ms. Bogart instead went to Redwood City to help set up a client service center near the shelter.

"At the same time there was that big plane crash there was a big fire right in our backyard that felt really personal," Ms. Bogart says. "San Mateo County got a big hit."

Ms. Bogart says that her "baptism by fire," inspired her.

"Rather than frightening me, it encouraged me," she says. She plans to do more Red Cross training classes and get more local experience and then volunteer for a national disaster.

Paul Tarantino's story

Menlo Park's Paul Tarantino has long worked in the food industry so volunteering to help the Red Cross feed its clients is natural for him. He spent four days helping feed the residents and workers in the Redwood City shelter.

Mr. Tarantino says his many contacts in the food business have helped him plan how the local Red Cross chapter will feed very large numbers of people after a major disaster.

Food for the shelter residents, he says, came from donations by organizations such as the Salvation Army, St. Anthony's Padua Dining Room and the Lions Club, or was purchased at a discount from local restaurants.

"We got lots of positive feedback," about the food, Mr. Tarantino says, including a round of applause from the residents on Thursday night, their last night in the shelter. "I like giving people a nice healthy meal because it makes them feel better," he says.

The Red Cross says it provided 2,300 meals and more than 3,400 snacks after the airline crash and 3,128 meals after the apartment building fire.

Chuck Nile's story

Chuck Nile, who recently moved to Woodside from Atherton, has been a Red Cross volunteer for 12 years, helping local residents displaced by fires and teaching Red Cross partners to be shelter workers.

On the night after the plane crash, he was assigned to a family assistance center, set up at a hotel near the airport, where he relayed information from the center to the Red Cross.

Mr. Nile says he was able to meet with Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "I was really impressed with the NTSB," he says.

The Red Cross had mental health volunteers on site and helped airline passengers replace lost medications and prescription eyeglasses. "We were just there for support," he says.

A few days later Mr. Nile worked in the Red Cross headquarters relaying information gathered by Red Cross representatives in the airport's emergency operations center.

Next, he was sent to the Redwood City shelter, where the Red Cross had set up a client-assistance center that enabled displaced residents to get help from many organizations at one location.

Many organizations worked with the Red Cross on the response, ranging from the Fair Oaks Community Center and InnVision Shelter Network to the Office of Emergency Services, Salvation Army, and Hope Animal-Assisted Crisis Response.

My Story

In the past five years, I've helped with nearly a dozen national Red Cross operations after hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. But that didn't stop me from cursing at my car radio when, after having worked until 11 p.m. on the first day of the Red Cross response to the airline crash, I heard about the Redwood City apartment building fire.

"@#%*!," I said. "We can't possibly handle one more thing!"

I should have known better. As an organization that daily responds to disasters both large and small, the American Red Cross plans, trains and practices how to handle all of them ... even two disasters at the same time.

While I slept that night, the Red Cross had sent volunteers from all over the Bay Area to help with a fire less than four miles from my home.

After one more day in the Red Cross headquarters helping with the airline crash, I went to Redwood City to work in the shelter and service center.

There I was impressed to see how the partnerships our Red Cross chapter has formed helped the more than 100 residents of the building get back on their feet and find new homes. The task is a difficult one because the building was low-income housing and our county has a shortage of affordable rentals.

That work is still ongoing while the Red Cross continues to prepare its volunteers and the communities it serves to be ready for the next disaster that may strike.

How to help

Click here for information about the free training the Red Cross offers disaster volunteers. The Red Cross also needs volunteers to help with blood services, to assist military service members and their families, and to teach lifesaving skills.

Click here for information on what assistance the residents of the Woodside Road apartment building need.

Click here to donate to the local Red Cross chapter and help it respond to local disasters.

Click here to donate to the American Red Cross and help it respond to national disasters.

Click here to donate to the American Red Cross to help it with all its endeavors, including blood services, assisting military members and their families, and teaching lifesaving skills.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Burger chain Shake Shack to open in Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 16 comments | 4,210 views

The Cost of Service
By Aldis Petriceks | 1 comment | 961 views

Couples: When Wrong Admit It; When Right; Shut Up
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 414 views

One-on-one time
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 384 views