Sept. 11 service: ‘It does change you’

Why go to New Jersey in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001?

“To help.”

Tad Primus needs few words to explain it, though many emotions are behind it.

Primus, manager of Hood River Safeway since April, volunteered for three weeks with the American Red Cross, with his wife, Tonya, nearly a year ago.

“We’re very grateful for everything we’ve got. It does change you,” Tad said. “Anyone who goes back, you appreciate it. You appreciate the things in your life more and more.”

A year ago the couple lived in Pendleton, where Tad managed Safeway. Both were active in the local Red Cross chapter. Tad said Safeway took the unusual step of allowing him three weeks’ leave to go and donate their organizational skills to supplying relief efforts in Manhattan and New Jersey. Tad helped in the purchasing department and Tonya helped in transportation.

“It was very, very rewarding work for me,” said Tonya, who has 23 years’ experience as an office manager. She was responsible for 350 vehicles used by mental health counselors who fanned out across New Jersey to work with victims’ families — some of whom were not expressly willing to receive counseling.

Tad, in his 31st year with Safeway, said the Red Cross work itself was not much different from running a grocery store, he said. He got on well with his three co-workers as they dealt with heavy demand from agencies seeking supplies.

“In the first week we had 50 people at a time in a small room wanting something,” he said. That lessened by the third week.

“Emotionally, it was a lot harder,” Tad said.

“They told me when I got there I could have a day off after 10 days, and I said ‘Ah, I’ll just work on through.’ By the time 10 days came, I tell you, I was so ready for a day off.

“Seeing the sadness of people. I’ve never been around that much sadness,” he said. “To see the people and see the mess, see the families ... People were involved there for a common good,” he said, stopping to let those words sink in.

Like her husband, Tonya’s eyes well up when she talks about it. Her father drowned when she was a child, and his body was never found.

“It made me feel like I could identify with those children who didn’t know where parents were,” she said.

“It was almost like a dream,” she said. “You just almost can’t believe it was real. You were just running on adrenaline.”

The couple spent most of their time in New Jersey but they did go to visit Ground Zero.

“The memories will stick in my mind,” Tad said. “The faces, stories, the people, the sadness, literally you just don’t forget it.

“Those people in New York, must still be living in that fear. It’s been a year but those people must have that fear in their mind. There will always be that feeling. It will never be closed.”

Tad said the firefighters made the biggest impression on him.

“They went to save people who were probably already lost, and many of them lost their lives ... you talk about heroes.” He said that as the firefighters left their shifts at Ground Zero, “They looked so tired they could barely pull their legs. And they knew they had lost so many of their good friends and it easily could have been them. It was incredible.”

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