South Mississippi Reaches Out To New York Attack Victims

Although ground zero in New York is miles away, some South Mississippians are reaching out to the people affected by September 11th. Two coast residents recently returned from the area after lending a hand in very different ways.

In his 10 years with the Red Cross Gulfport resident Pete Peterson has visited disaster sites all over the country, but he says he'd never seen anything like the magnitude of ground zero.

"It's just like a surreal thing when you walk up and get real close to it with a jagged steel sticking up and the smoke," Peterson said.

Peterson says the Red Cross is running a massive 24 hour relief operation at ground zero or "the pile" as the people there call it. For three weeks he ran an outreach center providing food, shelter, and counseling to the families who live around what used to be the World Trade Center.

"They came back to their apartments which were full of dirt and dust and debris and some of them were in fact destroyed," Peterson said. "So we tried to help those folks anyway we could."

The Harrison County Tourism Commission is part project to provide vacation packages to emergency workers and their families called "Operation Open Arms." Before deciding just who would get the chance to choose from 11 travel destinations in four Southeastern states, delegates traveled to New York to get a better understanding of what people there were experiencing.

"The day we'd gotten, there they had just found three more bodies that morning and you could feel the sadness around. There wasn't a lot of discussion," tourism leader Misty Velasquez said. "Just knowing that we're going to be able to help some and to give them a break and to give them a chance to regroup and reconnect with their family members makes us very proud."

Peterson and the Tourism Commission hope they've made a positive difference in New York. The Commission is working to make all the vacations good through 2002. That's because New York City firefighters have vowed not to take leave until the body of every missing firefighter is found.

By Danielle Thomas