The Red Cross volunteer recruitment notice in the Middletown Times-Herald Record didn’t promise adventure or a place in American history. But Maria Frangipane and husband Al of Bethel found no …
The Red Cross volunteer recruitment notice in the Middletown Times-Herald Record didn’t promise adventure or a place in American history. But Maria Frangipane and husband Al of Bethel found no less when they volunteered in 1999 with the Sullivan County chapter of the American Red Cross.
“We joined together,” said Al. Their three children grown, the couple wanted to be of service to their community, although that was nothing new to Maria. She volunteered in Sullivan County with the Parent Teacher Student Organization, Bethel Lions, scouts and fire department auxiliary, while Al worked in the Brooklyn court system.
At first, Red Cross duties meant helping out at local blood drives and assisting people displaced by fire and flood. “Maria’s face was the first thing blood donors saw. That was no accident. She had a way of putting people at ease,” said Al.
He recalled another instance to illustrate that point. He and Maria were in a makeshift storm shelter at the Kerhonkson Firehouse, where they had been taken after their car was submerged on a flooded road during Hurricane Irene. Although both were in shock from their own harrowing experience, Maria gravitated toward another couple whose home had just been demolished by a falling tree while they were inside it. Al said, “In her own gentle way, she brought them back to reality.” The other couple became lifelong friends of the Frangipanes.
Her gentle ministrations often had long-lasting effects. One day, Al and Maria were eating at Blanche’s Diner (now the Kosmic Kitchen) in Mongaup Valley. From across the room, a man stared openly at Maria. “It made me a little uncomfortable,” admits Al. “As we were getting up to leave, the man came over and said, ‘Maria, you probably don’t remember me, but my family and I will never forget how kind you were to us after our house was destroyed by fire years ago.’”
Maria had another remarkable gift as well: she was a journalist, not by profession or training, but by compulsion, keeping a first-person account of daily life. It would prove invaluable when she witnessed first-hand some of the most tragic days in American history.
When the call came on September 11, 2001, Maria was watching on television events unfolding at the World Trade Center. She and Al were needed in the city. From there, her journal tells the story:
“Without a second thought, I proceeded to pack a few sets of clothes for us. At 1 p.m., we were to meet the bus that would take us to NYC. On the way down to Manhattan, we sat next to a male nurse from Westchester Medical Center and another young male nurse. I don’t recall where he was from. We chatted. They were eager to get there and help. To help rescue those poor souls that were laying under the rubble. Anxious to get them out to their families. We wondered how we would react if and when we got to the trenches.
After the formalities of paperwork, debriefing and physicals in the White Plains office, we finally arrived at the Greater New York headquarters of the Red Cross at 8:30 p.m. Then came the waiting… there were so many volunteers. Official people running here and there, clipboards, walkie-talkies and cell phones in tow. At 2 a.m., we were finally assigned a Red Cross vehicle and asked to bring food to the firefighters and police who had been working there for hours and hours. Our destination was a school auditorium at Ground Zero, where the rescue workers would be able to maybe eat and rest. Along the way, there were police road stops at every other corner. They waved us through as we showed our IDs. We were with two other volunteers who, like us, were filled with anxiety, fear, anger and so many other emotions. We looked in awe at the ambulances parked bumper to bumper for blocks along the West Side Highway. I would not be exaggerating if I said there were 300 to 400 waiting.
It took us about 10 minutes to drive from Amsterdam Avenue and 66th Street to where we found… boulders of concrete in our path, blockages, cranes, flatbeds—and rescue workers walking around looking for a place to rest their weary bones. Inches and inches of concrete dust… We were a block away from our point of delivery. The air was heavy. The smell was one I couldn’t recognize or compare to any odor I was familiar with. What was it?”
Here, Al picks up the story. “When I saw that dust, I told Maria to wait in the van while we found out where to place the food. When I got back to it, she was gone.”
Maria’s journal continues: “Not realizing, I began to walk. I spoke to firemen and police as I slowly made my way down the block. I asked, ‘How are you? How long have you been here? Can I get you some water, a sandwich? Here, let me wipe your face.’”
Al continues, “I was stopped by a cop who wouldn’t let me past the twisted steel girder that is now part of the 9/11 Memorial. Maria was on the other side of it. I pointed to her and told him she was my wife. He looked at me and said, ‘You’re a lucky man.’”
Maria recounts their experience: “The tears stung my eyes. The acrid smoke and odor burned my throat. But I couldn’t worry about me. I looked at each of them. I could see deep into their eyes. I could see the despair. The wondering. The anger. The fear… Many of the men that were missing were their friends, brothers, maybe fathers.
In their weariness, they were so thankful for the supplies… They couldn’t say ‘thank you’ enough times. They openly asked God to bless us. We openly asked the same for them. Our immediate job was done. We loaded into the van to return to headquarters. I don’t think either of us said a word on the way back. You could hear the sniffling. The sighs. The Red Cross building was in sight now. We pulled up and readied for the next trip. But that would come only after the other vans returned empty of supplies and ready to be reloaded and sent out again and again and again.”
Maria and Al worked for three days at Ground Zero, with no thought for their own comfort, health or safety before returning home.
Maria’s journal continues: “I watched TV as the rest of the world has been doing since Tuesday. I saw one of the nurses we rode down with being interviewed. He got to help. But not in the way he wanted. He didn’t find anyone to rescue. Only bodies to recover. We’re home now.... and we’re safe.”
Maria and Al continued to volunteer with the Red Cross, serving during Hurricane Irene flooding and in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, until Maria’s declining health forced them to step back.
Maria died of cancer on February 20, 2020. More than 600 people gathered to celebrate her life, lived head-on and full-out. Al Frangipane is a lucky man, and a proud one.
For volunteer opportunities with the American Red Cross, see www.redcross.org/volunteer/become-a-volunteer.html.